Oil Spill Update: Hitch with Plugging Leak; Obama Extends Drilling Moratorium; Wildlife Deaths on the Rise; BP Saw Warning Signs

Oil Spill Update: Hitch with Plugging Leak; Obama Extends Drilling Moratorium; Wildlife Deaths on the Rise; BP Saw Warning Signs

Alisa Opar
Published: 05/27/2010

Lousiana Department of Wildlife and Fisheries biologists untangle an oiled pelican from fishing wire and take it to be cleaned. Photo by Kim Hubbard/Audubon magazine.

It’s been 37 days since the first explosion hit the Deepwater Horizon oilrig in the Gulf of Mexico on April 20. After a month of waiting for the slick to hit land, in the last week oil has begun washing up on more and more of the coast, claiming a growing number of wildlife victims and taxing response efforts. This morning S. Elizabeth Birnbaum, head of the MMS, resigned under pressure.

Here’s the latest news on the Gulf oil spill: 

BP drastically underestimated size of leak
The flow of oil from the broken wellhead may be four times the amount BP said was pouring into the ocean, making it the largest oil spill in U.S. history.
Government experts announced today that their preliminary investigation showed that the flow is in the range of 12,000 to 19,000 barrels a day—far more than BP’s figure of 5,000 barrels daily. The group, made up of experts from the federal, private, and academic sectors, used three different methodologies to make the calculations because measuring oil flow is extremely challenging, given the environment, unique nature of the flow, limited visibility, and lack of human access to BP’s leaking oil well.

Workers deploy hard boom around an island containing a pelican nesting colony. Many of the pelicans are already oiled, including the one shown on the far right. Photo by Kim Hubbard/Audubon Magazine
Oil and wildlife
The waiting is over: Oil is washing ashore. "Unfortunately, it's looking like a real oil spill now," Larry McKinney, who heads the Harte Research Institute for Gulf of Mexico Studies, part of Texas A&M University, told the San Francisco Gate. "This is the stuff that does the damage."

Pass-a-Loutre marsh. Photo by Kim Hubbard/Audubon magazine
Louisiana is being hit hardest, with oil making its way onto beaches and into marshes filled with birds. In Pass-a-Loutre marsh, the rust-colored grease is clinging to the plants and the birds.
To date, wildlife rescuers have found 440 birds, 393 of the dead and the rest captured alive. Experts are still determining how many turtle and dolphin mortalities are due to the spill. On Monday, the Center for Biological Diversity filed a petition to have the Atlantic bluefin tuna listed as an endangered species; the Gulf of Mexico is the only documented spawning ground of the western stock (the eastern stock spawns in the Mediterranean).
Setback holds up effort to plug leak
UPDATED 7:40am May 28: On Thursday night BP resumed its efforts to stop the leak from the wellhead 5,000 feet below the surface. Though the company and government officials indicated on Thursday morning that the process seemed to be working, they later said that they'd actually stopped pumping on Wednesday night when engineers saw that too much of the mud was escaping with gas and oil.

No explanation was given as to why officials created the impression that pumping was underway Thursday morning. "The engineers also said that the problem they encountered was not entirely unexpected, and that  they believed they would ultimately succeed," The New York Times reports. 

The “top kill” procedure works by injecting heavy drilling fluids through the blowout preventer on the seabed, down into the well. If enough of this “drilling mud” accumulates, it should overcome the upward pressure of the crude oil escaping from the well and plug it. 

From The New York Times:

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