Ominous record as BP becomes largest ever oil spill in Gulf of Mexico

BP’s massive oil spill became the largest ever in the Gulf of Mexico yesterday, based on the highest of the federal government’s estimates, an ominous record that underscores the dire need to halt the gusher.

The oil that’s spewed for two-and-a-half months from a blown-out well a mile under the sea hit the 140.6 million gallon mark, eclipsing the record-setting, 140-million-gallon Ixtoc I spill off Mexico’s coast from 1979 to 1980. Even by the lower end of the government’s estimates, at least 71.7 million gallons are in the Gulf.

The growing total is crucial to track, in part because London-based BP plc is likely to be fined per gallon spilled, said Larry McKinney, director of Texas A&M University at Corpus Christi’s Gulf of Mexico research institute.

Measuring the spill helps scientists figure out where the missing oil is, hidden below the water surface with some even stuck to the seafloor. Oil not at the surface damages different parts of the ecosystem.

“It’s a mind-boggling number any way you cut it,” said Ed Overton, a Louisiana State University environmental studies professor who consults for the federal government on oil spills. “It’ll be well beyond Ixtoc by the time it’s finished.”

Passing Ixtoc just before the July 4 weekend, a time of normally booming tourism, is bitter timing.

The BP spill is the largest spill ever recorded offshore during peacetime.

But it’s not the biggest in history.

That happened when Iraqi forces opened valves at a terminal and dumped about 460 million gallons of oil in 1991 during the Persian Gulf war.

Meanwhile, the government has pinned its latest clean-up hopes on a huge new piece of equipment: the world’s largest oil-skimming vessel, which arrived on Wednesday.

Officials hope the ship can scoop up to 21 million gallons of oil-fouled water a day.

Dubbed the A Whale, the Taiwanese-flagged former tanker spans the length of three-and-a-half football fields and is 10 storeys high. It just emerged from an extensive retrofitting to prepare it specifically for the Gulf.

The vessel looks like a typical tanker, but it takes in contaminated water through 12 vents on either side of the bow. The oil is then supposed to be separated from the water and transferred to another vessel. The water is then channelled back into the sea.


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