Friday, July 23, 2010

Bonnie, Bonnie Friday: July 23 BP Oil Spill Update

1. Oilcast.

The approach of Tropical Storm Bonny has "forced the evacuation of response vessels at the site of BP’s blown-out oil well, further stalling efforts to permanently seal the well," the New York Times reports this morning.
Among the vessels forced to flee the well site, 50 miles off the Louisiana coast, was a drill rig that was working on a relief well, which is considered the ultimate way to seal the well.
* * *
The drill rig that was working on the relief well was most likely to be among the first to leave because it travels very slowly. Other ships that are better able to handle higher seas and travel faster would leave later, Admiral Allen said. Support ships for submersibles that have been monitoring the well would be among the last to leave, so the well would probably be unattended for only a few days, he said.
The oil well itself will be "left closed off and unattended." It is expected there is "little risk" the 3-stack cap will "deteriorate" under pressure.
The decision to leave the well capped, which was made at the recommendation of Energy Secretary Steven Chu, means that scientists with the government and with BP think that the well is undamaged and that there is little risk it would deteriorate if kept under pressure, as it has been since valves on a new cap were closed a week ago.
The National Hurricane Center is projecting that T.S. Bonnie will not likely grow to hurricane status. It is expected to near the Gulf coast late Saturday or early Sunday.

Depending on how close the storm passes to the well and how long it takes to clear out, a BP spokesman estimates it will take 10 to 12 days to complete the relief well operation. This likely means a permanent solution to the long-running oil gusher will be pushed back to mid-August, and that's if everything goes well.

2. Bonnie, Bonnie Loch Ile.

Kimberly Blair reports for the local daily, "Pensacola Beach officials are more worried about Tropical Storm Bonnie... stirring up dangerous rip currents than washing oil up on the beach."
Bonnie's prevailing cyclonic winds are likely to push BP's lake of oil -- which we're told a true Scottish Bonnie would call loch ile -- away from the Florida panhandle farther to the south and west.

Even T.S. Bonnie isn't likely to do much damage to Pensacola Beach, Blair's sources believe.
"By all indications, if it follows the projected path and crosses the Gulf on Saturday or Sunday and goes into Texas or Louisiana, we'll get some surf, no doubt," said Pensacola Beach Public Safety Supervisor Bob West. "The projected 40 mph or 50 mph winds, will only create 5 to 6 foot waves."
Just the kind of conditions surfers enjoy -- and in which unwary swimmers drown.

Jim Williams at Hurricane City has collected all the early morning computer-generated spaghetti forecasting models for Tropical Storm Bonnie. (See above) A near-contemporaneous public advisory from the Hurricane Center, however, warns that "a tropical storm watch has been issued for the northern Gulf of Mexico coast from Destin... westward to Morgan City Louisiana."

This represents a slight shift to the east. This is the reason, as NHC explains in its discussion:
Bonnie is moving faster and has turned west-northwestward.* * * There is some spread in
the guidance after landfall along the northern gulf coast. The guidance is noticeably faster... which may be in part from the more westward initial location. The new NHC track is similar to the previous track but is faster than the previous advisory. This requires the issuance of tropical storm watches for a portion of the northern gulf coast.
Still, Pensacola Beach is unlikely to be affected much, other than by higher waves, brisk but not particularly damaging winds, and starting today "thunderstorms after 1 p.m."

3. Promotional Predicament.

The predicament for Pensacola area businesses is apparent to all. The Island Authority's Bob West gave news reporter Blair a quote for the ages that encapsulates the dilemma facing us:
"The beach looks great, with the exception of sargassum and algae. The water is clear and is that beautiful blue. There's only a smattering of tar balls."
Other than that, Mrs. Lincoln, how was the play?

4. "It's the Water."

Alexander Higgins has serious questions -- which is putting it mildly -- about EPA's assurances that its monitoring of Gulf seafood and water shows all is safe. Concerned over "obfuscated and poorly arranged" reports about the safety of Gulf water and seafood, he mashed up a number of EPA's sampling reports with local media stories about tests for Vanadium, a naturally-occurring metal found in oil which is a potential carcinogen but more commonly causes "bronchitis and pneumonia."

According to Higgins Gulf Coast local media reports are far more accurate in showing contaminated water samples than EPA's own publicly-released test results. His summary about Pensacola Beach is typical of many of the other coastal localities he examined:
One of the most well known areas being devastated by the BP Gulf Oil Spill is Pensacola Beach Florida.

Amazingly however the EPA reports only detecting on substance, Diesel Range Organics [C10-C28] in a water sample taken on May 9th, from all of the samples collected within 10 miles of Pensacola Beach.

While the EPA data shows the beach is free of contamination that clearly isn’t the case and against advice of Federal scientists Pensacola Beach was reopened after being absolutely covered with oil in June. Over 400 people ended getting sick after swimming on the county beaches.
We've previously mentioned that the "400" number is now said to have been an error. But that shouldn't obscure Higgins' larger point that EPA test results released to the public are, on the whole, almost completely useless to the average citizen. They certainly appear to differ substantially from local media reports as well.

EPA was heavily criticized for its supposed claims after 9-11 that New York City air was safe to breathe. However, the evidence for that is mixed as Google's own mash-up for 9-11 researchers shows. But reason for doubts remain about the way in which EPA casts its air quality reports for public consumption.

Higgins' work is useful, but hardly the last word on the safety of seafood and water in the Gulf. Except on this one point: EPA has a huge job ahead if it wants to regain the public's trust about its air and water quality reports. This can only be done if it finds a way to issue candid, detailed, and easily-explained public reports that give the average citizen meaningful information.

EPA has made some progress in the last month. The new web site "EPA Response to BP Spill in the Gulf of Mexico" is a start. It's easy enough to understand, too, if you have a college degree, can read the periodic table of elements, and have a copy of Merck's Manual handy.

Does anyone else think it's weird that Homeland Security can reduce the public notice about the terrorism threat level to five colored-bar warnings, yet EPA has yet to find a quick and accurate way to warn the citizenry at large where and when the water is unsafe for swimming or the seafood is inedible?

5. Murzin Mirth.

Pensacola News Journal columnist Mark O'Brien is fresh from nearly finishing out of the money in an Indianapolis horse race for 'funniest columnist.' At least he beat someone whose humorous entry was all about potty training.

In his allotted space today O'Brien relates a remark recently made by now-candidate for county commissioner Dave Murzin. Murzin is freshly home from his own trip -- this one as state representative to Tallahassee, where he made sure voters will have absolutely no say about stiffening an offshore drilling ban to protect the state's beaches.

According to O'Brien, "Murzin, a state representative from Pensacola, said he likes 'listening to people' and hearing others' opinions."

Now that is hilarious! Mark deserves a first place prize from someone for that catch.

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