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Mexico on the Alert Over Massive Oil Spill

Emilio Godoy

MEXICO CITY, Apr 27 2010 (IPS) - Mexico is gearing up for the environmental effects of the oil spill caused by last week’s sinking of a BP-owned deepwater drilling rig in the Gulf of Mexico, off the coast of the U.S. state of Louisiana.

A BP team using remotely operated underwater vehicles continued trying without success Tuesday to plug the leaking oilwell on the seafloor, as other teams placed floating oil barriers to protect the most sensitive coastal areas, like a national wildlife refuge in Louisiana.

“If the projections remain steady, the oil slick will not reach Mexico. But if the weather conditions change and that happens, it would mean an environmental disaster on a scale that Mexico is not prepared to cope with,” Gustavo Ampugnani, Greenpeace International political coordinator for Latin America, told IPS.

The Deepwater Horizon drilling rig, owned by Swiss-based Transocean Ltd and under lease to BP through September 2013, sank Thursday after an explosion caused a fire that burned for two days.

The disaster could become the worst oil spill in North America since the Exxon Valdez ran aground off Alaska in 1989. Of the 126 crew members on the rig at the time, 11 are missing and presumed dead, and 17 were injured, one of whom is still hospitalised.

The rig was sitting in water 1,500 metres deep. An estimated 42,000 gallons (nearly 160,000 litres) a day of crude oil is leaking from the well on the sea floor. The oil slick now covers some 4,800 square kilometres, and as much as 140 tons of fuel could end up in the sea, according to projections.

Greenpeace Mexico warned that the water pollution threatens marine fauna, waterfowl, beaches and wetlands in and off the coast of Tamaulipas. For example, there are six species of whales in the area, and it is currently fishing season for bluefin tuna.

Mexico’s ministries of energy and the environment and natural resources have not yet issued statements on the disaster.

“The accident is bad publicity for the industry,” said Ampugnani. “But the Mexican government is in favour of the continued all-out use of fossil fuels to drive economic growth.”

The Gulf of Mexico, which is bordered by the U.S. states of Texas, Alabama, Mississippi, Louisiana and Florida and the eastern Mexican state of Tamaulipas, has the second largest man-made dead zone in the world’s coastal waters.

There are an estimated 150 dead, or “hypoxic,” zones, which are places where there is not enough oxygen to support marine life.

The dead zone in the Gulf of Mexico has grown to cover an area as large as 20,000 square kilometres, and is off the coast of Louisiana, Texas and Tamaulipas.

The dead zone is caused mainly by the use of nitrogen fertilisers that wash off the fields into the Mississippi River, which empties into the Gulf of Mexico. The fertilisers encourage algae to grow in massive quantities, consuming the oxygen necessary to the survival of fish and other marine species.

The governments of the United States and Mexico and the oil industry are speeding up oil exploration and drilling in the region. In late March, U.S. President Barack Obama unveiled a new national oil drilling proposal to allow exploration for oil and natural gas along the Atlantic coastline from Delaware to Florida.

The Obama administration is also seeking congressional approval for opening up a vast expanse of water in the eastern Gulf of Mexico, off the coast of Florida, to drilling.

U.S. authorities and the London-based BP have sent 49 vessels — oil skimmers, barges, tugboats and recovery boats that separate oil from water — to the area to contain the oil spill.

The BP-led team reported Tuesday that 29,140 gallons of dispersant had been deployed to break the oil into droplets that can dissolve into the water, and said the crews had recovered 1,152 barrels (43,384 gallons) of an oil-water mix.

Officials said most of the oil is of a lighter grade that easily disperses.

Since 2001, there have been 858 explosions and fires in the Gulf of Mexico, and 69 offshore deaths, according to the Minerals Management Service, the U.S. federal agency responsible for managing federal lands for oil and gas exploration and development.

“This can’t be completely cleaned up; the best that can be done is to recover a portion of what was spilled,” Ampugnani said.

Up to now, the worst oil spill in North America occurred in March 1989, when the Exxon Valdez tanker spilled 10.8 million gallons (some 40 million litres) of oil into the sea off the coast of Alaska, triggering one of the most devastating human-caused environmental disasters in history.

In 1996, a U.S. federal court ordered Exxon to pay five billion dollars in punitive damages. But the verdict was overturned, and in the end the fine was reduced to 507 million dollars.

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