Oil Spill Dumps as Much as 1.1 Million Gallons Into Gulf of Mexico, Raising Concerns About Wildlife

The U.S. Coast Guard is still searching for the specific source of the leak, which occurred last week

An oil platform sits in the ocean
An oil platform in the Gulf of Mexico. Officials spotted an oil slick three to four miles wide off the coast of Louisiana last Thursday. Michael Sugrue via Getty Images

Up to 1.1 million gallons of oil may have leaked into the Gulf of Mexico off the coast of Louisiana, the United States Coast Guard said in a statement on Tuesday. No injuries have been reported so far, but officials fear the incident could harm threatened wildlife.

The Coast Guard is still working to identify the specific source and cause of the spill, but the discharge is near a pipeline system owned by the Main Pass Oil Gathering (MPOG) company. A pressure anomaly was identified in one of their pipelines between Wednesday evening and Thursday morning last week, reports NOLA.com’s Mike Smith. Then, at 6:30 a.m. Thursday, MPOG closed the 67-mile pipeline.

The oil sheen was first spotted close to Plaquemines Parish, southeast of New Orleans, at 9:00 a.m. on Thursday, according to the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration (NOAA). The Third Coast Midstream Pipeline company reported the leak ten minutes later.

Captain Kelly Denning, commanding officer for the Coast Guard’s New Orleans sector, did not comment on the two-and-a-half-hour gap between when the pipeline was shut down and when the leak was reported, according to NOLA.com.

Skimming vessels have been removing oil from the surface of the water since last week. On Monday, the Coast Guard said on social media that 210 gallons of oily water had been recovered. While winds have helped evaporate and disperse the oil, some is still visible, Denning said at a Tuesday news conference, according to Kevin McGill of the Associated Press (AP).

Surveys of the pipeline with remotely operated vehicles have not yet located the specific source of the leak. While officials don’t yet know how much oil has entered the water, calculations indicate that 1.1 million gallons could have escaped from the pipeline, the Coast Guard reported.

“We’re not saying that was the exact amount,” Denning said, per NOLA.com. “We are not going to know the exact amount of oil that was discharged into the Gulf of Mexico until we find the source.”

The cause of the leak is also under investigation. Denning said Tuesday that they’ve yet to determine which pipeline operator is responsible, but they expect it to be MPOG, per NOLA.com.

The spill has raised concerns about potential impacts on wildlife in the region. A U.S. Fish and Wildlife official said two oily pelicans had been spotted Saturday off the Louisiana coast, per the AP. The area is home to sea turtles, including the Kemp’s Ridley, as well as Rice’s whales, both of which are endangered.

“There are endangered and threatened species in Louisiana waters,” Doug Helton, a NOAA emergency operations coordinator, tells WWL-TV’s Lily Cummings. “Most of the coastal Louisiana is wetlands and marshes, and that’s typically considered really sensitive to oil.”

Thousands of oil spills, mostly small, happen in U.S. waters annually, according to NOAA, and even the small ones can cause damage.

In 2010, an explosion on the Deepwater Horizon drilling platform in the Gulf of Mexico killed 11 people and dumped 134 million gallons of oil into the ocean over three months, becoming the biggest oil spill in history. The impacts of large spills can be felt for decades.

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