On June 3 Mexico’s government-controlled oil company, Pemex, struck oil in a vast undersea field more than 10,000 feet beneath the Bay of Campeche. But the tremendous pressure released by the strike caused the exploratory well to blow out, ripping the piping and casing asunder, and the Ixtoc I well began to spew a lethal black tide into the Gulf of Mexico.
Since then it has been gushing between 20,000 and 30,000 barrels a day into the sea, making it the worst oil spill in history. Wind and water currents threaten to push huge slicks toward the ecologically fragile Texas coast 500 miles to the north. To make matters worse, the oil will continue to flow until two relief wells can ease the underground pressures. That will be in late September at the earliest.
As the first tar balls appeared on the beach of Texas’ coastal resort South Padre Island, Dr. Roy Hann, accompanied by his wife, Ann, and his seven-member oil-spill technology team, was there to inspect them. Overall, no one is better qualified to assess this potential catastrophe than Hann, a 45-year-old professor of environmental engineering at Texas A&M. This year, on a commission by the U.N., he completed a 500-page report detailing winds, currents and other factors affecting possible oil spills in the greater Caribbean. He has also run training seminars for personnel from 40 nations on how to deal with a Torrey Canyon or Ixtoc I.
Raised in oil-rich Oklahoma, Hann studied civil engineering at the University of Oklahoma. He administered federal waste programs before undertaking a study of endangered estuaries, and has observed firsthand many of the major oil spills in recent years. Last week he discussed the significance of this latest spill—and future ones—with Kent Demaret of PEOPLE.
Has the Mexican government underplayed the severity of Ixtoc I?
It certainly did in the early days. They continue to say 50 percent of what is coming out is burning off, but there’s no black smoke—the only thing we see is a clean fire. That means it’s natural gas, not crude, that’s burning.
Why is there so much uncertainty over what will happen next?
In effect, we’re dealing with a different spill each day, because current and wind conditions differ each day.
Is there hope of escaping the worst in Texas?
Some. Northerly winds will alter the coastal currents in September.
Why haven’t the Mexicans asked for outside help?
I don’t know whether it’s embarrassment, nationalistic pride or because they just don’t want the true figures to be released. I suspect it could be a bit of all three.
Can nature itself take care of some of the problem?
To a limited degree. In the 1974 tanker Metula spill [off the tip of South America] we’ve found that on open beaches, battered by wind and waves, there’s little oil left today. But in the sheltered estuaries and bays there are still mummified birds encased in oil, plus oozing emulsions in the marshes, and zones that are paved with oil like airport ramps.
Do you foresee a greater number of oil spills in the future?
Yes. Countries are going to try harder to find oil. This means they’ll get into deeper and deeper ocean environments where accidents are more likely. The idea of a blowout in a hostile and faraway environment like the ice cap off the North Slope is terrifying.
Are more tanker accidents likely?
The overbuilding of tankers in recent years means fewer new ones will be built. So we are going to have an increasingly older fleet, with all that should imply in the way of dangers. In a collision off Trinidad recently, we had the potential of a 500,000-ton spill though, fortunately, it didn’t happen.
What about battling a spill at sea?
All of those fancy new gadgets work under some circumstances, but not under others. Floating booms with a skirt are a good and necessary tool, but if the current is just seven-tenths of a knot the oil will escape. Some vacuum skimmers won’t work in choppy seas.
What’s the price tag on a clean-up operation?
Well, it cost more than $100 million to clean up after the Amoco Cadiz [the worst previous spill] in France.
Does the U.S. have a strategy for tackling oil spills?
It’s very uneven. The President has asked the Coast Guard, for example, to develop a plan to handle a spill of 100,000 tons at sea. I agree with all that. But I’m concerned that we haven’t developed any real plans for getting the stuff off the beach. We have to have a first, second, third and fourth alarm capability, like the fire department. Right now we are putting together a fire department after the fire breaks out. That’s not the way to do it.