Here Comes Trouble: Stories from My Life

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Dahr Jamail

Dahr Jamail is an independent journalist and author who has spent a total of nine months in occupied Iraq as one of only a few independent US journalists in the country. Dahr has also has reported from Syria, Lebanon and Jordan.

July 18th, 2010 4:38 PM

The Source of Our Despair

Photography by Erika Blumenfeld

Photo by Erika Blumenfeld © 2010
Photo by Erika Blumenfeld © 2010

For the first time in 87 days, little or no oil could be escaping into the Gulf of Mexico from BP’s Macondo well. The new Capping Stack was deployed on July 11 from onboard the Transocean Discoverer Inspiration.

Photo by Erika Blumenfeld © 2010
Photo by Erika Blumenfeld © 2010

With a new containment cap atop the damaged well, many are hopeful.

But all is not well, after all.

National Incident Commander Thad Allen said Friday that the pressure within the cap is not increasing, as was expected.

The idea is that the pressure (pounds per square inch (PSI)) within the cap should balance out between 8-9,000 PSI, which would show the well has maintained integrity. BP hoped to reach 9,000 PSI, but stated that there would still be well integrity with 7,500+ PSI. Unfortunately for BP, if the pressure tops out below that level, as it is now at 6,720 PSI, this could be an indication of a sub-sea leak somewhere deeper inside the well casing, meaning-the well has failed. One concern associated with this lower pressure is that it may well indicate that the well has been breached and that oil and gas are leaking out at other undetermined points.

Given BP’s proven propensity towards lying, skeptics, which are consistently needed to keep BP’s rhetoric in check, are also pointing towards other factors that could mean oil is continuing to spew into the Gulf near the well.

“With the pressure now virtually level at 6,700 [psi], it’s at the lower end of the ambiguity range, so it seems there is a good chance there is leak-off,” writes the Daily Hurricane, “That makes a lot of sense to me since there is 1,200 feet of open hole from the bottom of the 9 /7/8? liner to TD at about 18,300 feet. That’s not to mention possible casing damage up hole. Think of it like a garden hose with a nozzle on the end. As long as the nozzle is open, the hose looks fine. As soon as you close the nozzle, the hose will leak through any pinholes or around the faucet as pressure builds inside. In his statement late yesterday, Admiral Allen indicated they were probably going to go back to containment, which means they’ll be flowing the well to the various ships they have on station.”

Like virtually every other aspect of BP’s oil catastrophe in the Gulf, we’ll have to wait and see how bad this really is.

On Monday we took a flight out to what is referred to now as “the source,” the former site of the Deepwater Horizon rig. It’s taken me this long to be able to write about what we saw, because it was, frankly, traumatizing.

Oil sheen and sub-surface plumes of oil were visible long before we arrived at “the source,” located approximately 45 miles off the southeast coast of Louisiana.

In what has been a consistently maddening theme of our trip, flying out to the source found us viewing countless oil platforms, and in some cases, drilling rigs. All of which comprising the oily backdrop of BP’s oil disaster.

The stench of the sheen, and oil, began to infiltrate my nose and burn my eyes long before arriving at the source. Black oil clouds lurk below choppy blue seas in every direction as a virtual cityscape of ships and drill rigs loom on the horizon. They appear to rise out of the Gulf as we approach.


Photo by Erika Blumenfeld © 2010

We are cleared to fly at 1,500’, well below the FAA mandated 3,000’. My stomach sinks as we begin to bank to our right to begin the first of countless clockwise circles around the war-like scene.

A giant flame from the burning off of Methane and Benzene roars off the side of a rig, leaving a chemical gas floating lazily to the south as it rises.

Photo by Erika Blumenfeld © 2010
Photo by Erika Blumenfeld © 2010

Cory, our young pilot, flies us directly through this cloud. The plane shudders in the turbulence. I feel sick and dizzy from taking one breath of this, and with each future pass hold my breath through the entirety of our southern portion of the circle from fear of the chemical exposure.

Photo by Erika Blumenfeld © 2010
Photo by Erika Blumenfeld © 2010

The scene feels like death. An epic example of man-made destruction, damage, and mayhem let loose upon Earth.

Photo by Erika Blumenfeld © 2010
Photo by Erika Blumenfeld © 2010

It is as unnatural of a scene as one can imagine. That the Gulf, its marine life, eco-systems, and all the life that depend upon it are not under constant assault from this catastrophe is unthinkable.

As our small plane perpetually banks to the right, Erika shoots hundreds upon hundreds of photos of this terrible scene.

Photo by Erika Blumenfeld © 2010
Photo by Erika Blumenfeld © 2010

While staring at the appalling scene scudding by below us, I scribble notes like:
Death in the blue
Oil makes blue Gulf appear like cancer-ridden areas
Couldn’t look more unnatural
Burning eyes
Trouble breathing
Gulf looks bruised

The thick, humid, chemical-laden air astounds me. I wonder about the health of the hundreds of people down in the ships working around the clock to try to stop the volcano of oil.

After we’ve taken as many photos as we could, and our eyes are sufficiently burning, we all agree to head back towards the coast. The flight is long enough, again over countless wells and platforms, for me to ponder what our dependence on oil is costing the planet.

Photo by Erika Blumenfeld © 2010
Photo by Erika Blumenfeld © 2010

We divert to fly over the Chandeleur Islands, to see yet more chaotic booming, oil-burnt marsh, sheen, and threatened birds.


Photo by Erika Blumenfeld © 2010

Adm. Thad Allen warns off too much optimism towards the cap. “It remains likely that we will return to the containment process using this new stacking cap connected to the risers to attempt to collect up to 80,000 barrels of oil per day until the relief well is completed,” he has said.

I find it interesting that he, BP, and President Obama have all cited this capacity to collect up to 80,000 barrels of oil per day, despite the fact that the high-end government estimate of daily flow is 60,000 barrels.

Yet, the disaster continues. So far, approximately 1.82 million gallons of total chemical dispersant have been applied, 348 controlled oil burns have been conducted, and if daily flow estimates of 100,000 barrels per day, provided by independent scientists is correct, we already have 34 Exxon Valdez’ worth of oil injected into the Gulf of Mexico.

As of July 14, there was approximately 572 miles of Gulf Coast shoreline oiled, which does not include cumulative impacts. While most of the oil remains submerged (for now), we already have vast areas of coastline oiled: 328 miles in Louisiana, 108 miles in Mississippi (nearly their entire coastline), 67 miles in Alabama, and 69 miles in Florida.

I hope others are as enraged as I am by the ongoing ticker tape of BP’s stock price in news reports about the disaster, like this one from Friday: “News of the development just before Wall Street’s close lifted BP shares. They added $US2.74, or 7.6 per cent, to close at $US38.92, still well below the $US60.48 they fetched before the rig explosion.”

Why should we give a damn about the value of BP’s stock while their criminal negligence is annihilating the Gulf of Mexico?

While the cap-praising, and BP stock value glee continues, Thursday biologists are reporting the finding of at least another 300-400 oiled pelicans and hundreds of terns in the largest seabird nesting area along the Louisiana coast.


Photo by Erika Blumenfeld © 2010

Photo by Erika Blumenfeld © 2010
Photo by Erika Blumenfeld © 2010

This finding underscores the fact that the official tallies given for oiled wildlife are significantly underestimating the broad scope of destruction. So far, roughly 3,000 oiled birds have been collected across the Gulf-so this finding alone is a significant percentage increase.

“This is not like Exxon Valdez where you had tens of thousands of birds killed all at once,” said Ken Rosenberg, director of conservation science at the Cornell laboratory. “It’s more insidious because it is literally happening in waves and it’s happening over and over again as the birds are moving around.”

Friday, Louisiana’s St. Bernard Parish government reported that there have been at least 31 oil sightings in parish waters and on shorelines in just the past 48 hours. More oil-soaked birds, both dead and alive, have been reported, and the oil continues to spread. Much of this is happening at the Chandeleur Islands, where we’d already logged the futile booming.


Photo by Erika Blumenfeld © 2010

Photo by Erika Blumenfeld © 2010
Photo by Erika Blumenfeld © 2010

Photo by Erika Blumenfeld © 2010
Photo by Erika Blumenfeld © 2010

Photo by Erika Blumenfeld © 2010
Photo by Erika Blumenfeld © 2010

Almost needless to say, scientists are reporting how BP’s oil disaster is already altering the food web in the Gulf. On July 14, Associated Press reported, “Scientists are reporting early signs that the Gulf of Mexico oil spill is altering the marine food web by killing or tainting some creatures and spurring the growth of others more suited to a fouled environment. Near the spill site, researchers have documented a massive die-off of pyrosomes - cucumber-shaped, gelatinous organisms fed on by endangered sea turtles.”

The scope and scale of this disaster are impossible to communicate. Whilst flying giant arcing circles around the source, in every direction I looked I could see nothing but oil. Jonathan Henderson works for the Gulf Restoration Network. While looking out at the literal sea of oil beneath us, he reminded us that at the moment 75,000 square miles of the Gulf are covered in oil.

Erika Blumenfeld is an internationally exhibiting artist and Guggenheim Fellow with a BFA in Photography from Parsons School of Design. She is known for her Light Recordings series, and her ambitious work The Polar Project, a series of environment-focused artworks that document the environment of Antarctica and the Arctic. Blumenfeld’s installations have been exhibited widely in galleries and museums in the US and abroad, and have been featured in Art In America, ARTnews and more than half a dozen books. She is posting her photographs of the Gulf Coast on her blog: www.thepolarproject.com/blog

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