Deepwater Horizon: Disaster in the Gulf - THE DEEPWATER HORIZON PLUME

This image, released by NASA on May 24, 2010, depicts how the Deepwater Horizon oil slick was impacting the Mississippi Delta a month after an explosion at the offshore oil rig. The disaster killed eleven people and caused extensive coastal-area damage.


Two days after Deepwater Horizon initially exploded, it sank after another massive explosion.

During its collapsing descent into the Gulf, it broke a pipe leading to the oil reservoir. For months thereafter—87 days to be precise—the uncapped well at Mississippi Canyon 252 (MC252) gushed oil into the Gulf of Mexico. 

BP attempted to activate the failed blowout preventer (located underwater), after the rig collapsed, but those efforts did not work.  By early June, the U.S. federal government estimated 21-46 million gallons of crude oil had been sent into the water since the explosion. 

Put differently, every day the well was uncapped, it spewed between 504,000 and 1,050,000 additional gallons of free-flowing crude into the Gulf of Mexico.

Using the lower end of the spectrum, that's equivalent to having a new Exxon Valdez disaster - which leaked approximately 11 million gallons of crude oil into Prince William Sound - every five days. BP was able to recover some, but not all, of the escaping oil.

NOAA (the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration) and NASA (with its satellites) tracked the contamination plume as it moved away from Mississippi Canyon 252.  Let’s examine the maps and pictures which depict the story of spreading pollution.  Note that all maps are PDF links:

During the early days, oil on the Gulf is mostly located near the uncapped well:

  • First week - map shows location of the uncapped well (MC252) and spreading plume between April 22-26.  NOAA also predicts how far the plume will travel on April 27.
  • By May 1st, the contamination reaches Chandeleur Sound and gets closer to the Louisiana coast.
  • On the 3rd of June, NOAA’s map depicts the location of an oil sheen and possible tarballs moving toward the Florida coast.

Satellite imagery, from NASA, correlates with NOAA’s plume maps and predictions:

  • Smoke from the burning rig is visible from space on April 21st, the day after the explosion.
  • A satellite view, four days later, shows the oil moving toward the Delta National Wildlife Refuge and the Chandeleur Islands.  A close-up of the image shows the size of the oil slick compared to nearby ships.
  • By the 27th of April, the oil plume is approaching Louisiana’s barrier islands and beaches.
  • Eight days after the disaster at Deepwater Horizon, another catastrophe is in-the-making as the expanding slick threatens fragile habitats.
  • As the slick grows larger, officials review evidence (on the 29th of April) that the well is discharging more oil than they originally believed.
  • Nearly a month after the explosion, the still-open wellhead has discharged so much oil that the slick is just off the Mississippi Delta.

Six weeks after the disaster at Deepwater Horizon, the still-uncapped well had caused the worst oil disaster in American history. Contamination was even found in the Gulf's subsurface waters.

BP created two relief wells to stop the unchecked flow of oil into the Gulf. Officials expected those wells to be completed in August, about four months after the explosion.

The offending well was actually capped, using an experimental process, on the 15th of July, 2010. That means oil had leaked from the uncapped well for 87 days.

To prevent four months of damaging, non-stop releases into the environment (while relief wells were being drilled or an alternative plan could be developed), experts tried to determine whether temporary measures - such as spreading chemical dispersants and placing a large cap over the leak - could be usefully deployed

Everyone else was just hoping they would be successful and that appropriate regulations (not to mention carefully run businesses and federal agencies) would help to prevent another disaster in the Gulf - or elsewhere.

Some experts feared, with apparently good reason, that a huge oil plume could cause trouble underneath the Gulf's surface.  Meanwhile, others believed that a formal investigation was likely to place responsibility for the disaster at many different doorsteps. 

High on the list of suspects was the blowout preventer.  BP recovered it during September, of 2010, and experts tried to determine what went wrong. Transocean explains the issues, using the actual failed parts, in this video animation.

As official investigations continued, BP released its report on the disaster.  The company included itself in a blameworthy list.

The “Report to the President” concludes that the disaster at Deepwater Horizon was avoidable. It describes the “immediate causes of the Macondo Well blowout” with these words:

As this narrative suggests, the Macondo blowout was the product of several individual missteps and oversights by BP, Halliburton, and Transocean, which government regulators lacked the authority, the necessary resources, and the technical expertise to prevent.

We may never know the precise extent to which each of these missteps and oversights in fact caused the accident to occur. Certainly we will never know what motivated the final decisions of those on the rig who died that night.

What we nonetheless do know is considerable and significant: (1) each of the mistakes made on the rig and onshore by industry and government increased the risk of a well blowout; (2) the cumulative risk that resulted from these decisions and actions was both unreasonably large and avoidable; and (3) the risk of a catastrophic blowout was ultimately realized on April 20 and several of the mistakes were contributing causes of the blowout.” (See “Report to the President” at page 115 which appears as page 131 of the online PDF version.)

Everyone hopes that a disaster like Deepwater Horizon will never happen again, but individuals who investigated what occurred seem worried that other rigs could also be vulnerable.

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Author: Carole D. Bos, J.D. 5190stories and lessons created

Original Release: May 01, 2010

Updated Last Revision: Apr 29, 2019

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"THE DEEPWATER HORIZON PLUME" AwesomeStories.com. May 01, 2010. Feb 22, 2020.
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