Monday, 20 September 2010

Other oil spills

Oil slick in Gulf of Mexico, 24th May
Finally, five months after exploding, killing 11 workers and beginning to pour oil into the Gulf of Mexico, the Deepwater Horizon oil rig has been sealed. Yet the effects of the spill will be long term, and Bruce Ritchie's Florida Environments blog is an excellent resource for information on the impacts on communities, the environment and wildlife, and the responses of BP, the owners of the oil well, government agencies and community organisations. This interesting post is about a book which was published in June 2010, a compilation of 38 essays by writers who warned of the risks of offshore drilling before the Deepwater Horizon incident, when the ban against offshore drilling was lifted.

Now, it is likely that the media will move on from coverage of oil spills, yet they are commonplace, all over the world. Below are just a few examples of oil spills which occurred within a few weeks of the catastrophe in the Gulf of Mexico.

On 25th May 2010 several thousand barrels of crude oil spilled into a containment area at the Delta Junction pump station, about 100 miles south of Fairbanks, on the Alaska pipeline, which, since it opened in 1977, has moved 15 billion barrels of crude oil from the North Slope oilfields a distance of 800 miles to the port of Valdez. Ironically, the incident occurred whilst valve leak testing was underway. An open valve overflowed into a tank when a battery failed to control it. Fortunately the oil did not escape outside the containment area, which has a capacity of about 104,500 barrels, and no injuries were reported.

On the next day, on 26th May, a tanker collided with a bulk carrier 13 kilometres to the southeast Changi in Singapore, the world's biggest container port. About 18,325 barrels of oil were spilled, which amounts to about three days of leakage from the Deepwater Horizon well, or enough to fill an Olympic-sized swimming pool. By the next day patches of oil were washed up affecting a ferry terminal, sailing club, golf course and naval base on the shoreline.

In China, a serious oil spill began on 15th July 2010, when a pipeline at Dalian port exploded, spilling oil into the Yellow Sea. Within five days the size of the spill had doubled covering 430 square kilometres, and fishing in the area was banned. The workers attempting to clean up the spill with straw mats only had rubber gloves for protection, and the thick, sticky oil was getting into their skin. One worker, a firefighter, drowned and his body was found covered in crude oil. Two months later officials estimated that about 1,360 tonnes of oil had poured into the sea, but Greenpeace warned that the figure could be 60 times higher, making it one of the 30 worst oil spills in history.

With the world's media focussing on the Gulf of Mexico, it is important to shine a spotlight on other big oil companies. The True Cost of Chevron published an Alternative Annual Report for 2009 which documents the firm's lamentable record of leaks from operations around the world, including Alaska, California, Canada, the Philippines, Angola and Barrow Island off the coast of Australia.

Shell operates in 100 countries, and about 40 per cent of its oil spills have been in Nigeria. Oil and environmental experts estimate that between 9 and 13 million barrels of oil have been spilled in the Niger delta over the past 50 years, which is equivalent to a Valdez every year. Previous to the oil spill in the Gulf of Mexico, Valdez was the worst oil spill in the US, after the Exxon-Valdez oil tanker collided with rocks off Prince William Sound in Alaska in 1989. The effects of the contamination from the oil spill on wildlife and fishing are still evident today.

In recent weeks there have been two small oil spills from ships off the coast of India. While the scale of these is relatively small compared to the volumes of the spill in the Gulf of Mexico, there is considerable environmental damage and peoples livelihoods can be destroyed. Traffic and fishing were suspended after ship two Panama cargo ships, collided nearly 10 kilometres offshore from Mumbai harbour on 7th August 2010. One of the ships, the MSC Chittra, tilted 80 degrees and 300 containers carrying oil tumbled into the sea. Three days after the accident the oil spill was estimated to amount to nearly 50 tonnes and a thick oil slick was spotted 2-3 kilometres from the vessel.

Local people began bringing birds covered in oil into the Society for Prevention of Cruelty to Animals hospital at Parel for treatment. In September there were signs of a long term effect on marine life with reports of dead wildlife including a masked booby, a migratory bird, and a dolphin lying in sand contaminated with oil. On 14th August India's Environment Jairam Ramesh stated that it was the biggest oil spill ever to occur in India.

Further south on India's west coast, there are concerns that an oil spill off the coast of Goa might put people off visiting the beaches, which attract 2.5 million tourists per year. On 1st September 'tar balls' began flowing onto beaches including Colva, Candolim and Calangute. Ships routinely clean fuel tanks and dump the waste at sea, but this ship dumped tonnes of waste oil, much of which has drifted onshore. The oil spill formed 'tar balls', which are half solid lumps of oil, and are deposited up to 15 centimetres deep on beaches. On 17th September tar balls were still flowing onto the beaches.

All around the world there frequent narrow escapes as potential major oil spills are averted. On 4th September a ship carrying about 40,000 litres of diesel sunk during a fierce storm off Phuket. Fortunately no oil spill resulted from the incident. On 7th September four workers slipped off the Sinopec oil rig in the Shengli oilfield of China's northern coast. The rig was tilting at an angle of 45 degrees after a typhoon. 34 men were evacuated from the rig but two of workers who had fallen into the ocean were still missing. On the following day, 8th September, fire broke out in the living quarters of an oil rig 15 kilometres off Cape Virgenes, Patagonia, Chile. The fire was put out but reignited later. The workers were evacuated and the oil wells were successfully shut down and there were no reports of an oil spill.

All these incidents highlight the vulnerability to petrochemical pollution, especially from offshore oil and gas exploration and production, which continues worldwide, from the Arctic to the Antarctic.


Simon Greenwhich said...

Oil spilling is such a very dangerous and dreadful incident. These big companies have huge spill containment items, but once they get leaked, oil can do a tragedy not only to the environment but also to the people. It is therefore expected for the companies in this industry to double check containment methods every time.

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