The Earth Week We Will Never Forget

The Deepwater Horizon Disaster

The 2010 Earth Week will be one few will forget. On April 20th fire broke out on BP’s Deepwater Horizon Well in the Gulf of Mexico. Recent estimates place the number of barrels leaking out of the well at around 5,000 or 200,000 gallons of oil each day. What can we expect as crews rush to clean up this environmental  disaster?

Another week of oil pouring from the seafloor, is the best-case scenario for the Gulf Coast, where dead sea turtles are washing ashore and a massive rust-colored slick continues to swell from an uncontrolled gusher spewing into the water. At the current rate the spill will eclipse the 1989 Exxon Valdez tanker spill, which dumped 11 million gallons of oil off the Alaska coast, as the worst U.S. oil disaster in history in a matter of weeks.

Everything engineers have tried so far has failed. After the April 20 oil rig explosion, which killed 11 people, the flow of oil should have been stopped by a blowout preventer, but the mechanism failed. Efforts to remotely activate it continue to prove fruitless, weather has hampered plans to burn the oil and is making booms all along the coast ineffective.

"None of us have ever had experience at this level before. It ain't good," said Bob Love, coastal and non-game resources administrator with the Louisiana Department of Wildlife and Fisheries.

Even if the oil stays mostly offshore, the consequences could be dire for sea turtles, dolphins and other deepwater marine life – and microscopic plankton and tiny creatures that are a staple of larger animals' diets.

Moby Solangi, director of the Institute for Marine Mammal Studies in Gulfport, Miss., said at least 20 dead sea turtles were found on the state's beaches. He said it's too soon to say whether oil contamination killed them but that it is unusual to have them turning up across such a wide stretch of coast, nearly 30 miles. None of the turtles have oil on them, but Solangi said they could have ingested oily fish or breathed in oil on the surface.

Lisa Jackson, the EPA administrator, who is onsite states: “We are taking every possible step to protect the health of the residents and mitigate the environmental impacts of this spill. For several days, EPA has been on the ground evaluating air and water concerns and coordinating with other responding agencies. We are also here to address community members — the people who know these waters and wetlands best. They will be essential to the work ahead.”

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The oil slick over the water's surface appeared to triple in size over the past two days, which could indicate an increase in the rate that oil is spewing from the well, according to one analysis of images collected from satellites and reviewed by the University of Miami. While it's hard to judge the volume of oil by satellite because of depth, it does show an indication of change in growth, experts said.

"The spill and the spreading is getting so much faster and expanding much quicker than they estimated," said Hans Graber, executive director of the University of Miami’s Center for Southeastern Tropical Advanced Remote Sensing. "Clearly, in the last couple of days, there was a big change in the size."

And what of the efforts to rescue marine life that needs help around the oil spill? "We know they are out there" said Meghan Calhoun, a spokeswoman from the Audubon Aquarium of the Americas in New Orleans. "Unfortunately the weather has been too bad for the Coast Guard and NOAA to get out there and look for animals for us."

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