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The big spill — a blast from the past

27 May 2010

Whether the Deepwater Horizon blowout has been capped or not (there seems to be some question about it this morning), it probably already has topped the record for the biggest oil spill in the Americas, topping the worst ever oil disaster outside of wartime, the Ixtoc I disaster of 1979 -80.

Ixtoc I was drilling in only 3,600 meters below the seafloor (as opposed to Deepwater’s 10,600 m) when its blowout preventer failed.

After the blowout in Bay of Campeche in June 1979, it took until March of the next year to cap the well. In Campeche, the release was an estimated 10,000 to 30,000 barrels of oil daily, a total af 3,000,000 barrels eventually making their way north onto the beaches of Tamaulipas and the United States. Luckily for the beach industry of Campeche and the Yucatan, the currents and winds send the oil north. The greatest economic damage was to the Texas fishing industry.

It is difficult to compare the clean-up costs. PEMEX — as a agent of a foreign state could claim sovereign immunity in U.S. courts, but spent an estimated 100 million dollars in cleanup costs. Within Mexico, the most dramatic — and successful — of the recovery efforts was the great Tamaulipas turtle rescue of 1979, when thousands of baby Ridley Sea Turtles from their single breeding ground in Tamaulipas were airlifted to safer habitats, and a second breeding ground on Padre Island Texas was established (which is now even more threatened).    The long term environmental damage has never been (and probably never will be) known.

In both Iztoc and Deepwater Horizon, it was blow-out preventer failures that caused the disaster. Not much has changed really in thirty years.

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