Disaster Déjà Vu: Last GOM Spill

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"Oil from Ixtoc well still found on coastal rocks 30 years later."

Ixtoc I GOM spill 1979-1980The well blew out, the blowout preventer failed and the drill rig caught fire and sank. Oil gushed into the GOM at a staggering rate from the damaged riser that had attached the platform to the well. Nobody knew what to do, though engineers tried various measures to stem the flow, including a containment dome. Chemical dispersants to break up the oil were applied at one of the highest rates in history. Some of the oil was trapped well below the Gulf's surface, with undetermined effects. It seemed as though the spill might drag on forever.

Call it disaster déjà vu. This all-too-familiar description refers not to the ongoing BP oil gusher, but to an episode three decades earlier and about 1,000 km. south, at an exploratory oil well known as Ixtoc I, operated by Mexico's Petróleos Mexicanos. Between June 3, 1979 (blowout date) and March 23, 1980 (when Ixtoc I was finally capped), it spewed some 475,000 tons of oil into waters NW of Ciudad del Carmen on Mexico's Yucatán Peninsula.

Researchers struggling to determine the long-term environmental effects of BP's oil disaster have begun asking what helpful lessons Ixtoc I offers. "I think it has taken a little while for the research community to rediscover it," says Arne Jernelöv, environmental biochemist with the Institute for Futures Studies in Stockholm, who studied the Ixtoc I spill for the UN (A. Jernelöv and O. Lindén AMBIO 10, 299–306; 1981). "But by and large now I think it has."

Yet answers are scarce. Because funding for studies of the spill's impact dried up soon after the spill did, experts view Ixtoc I as a missed opportunity. "The research was stopped," says Wes Tunnell of the Harte Research Institute at Texas A&M. "That was the real crime of that spill."

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