Oil companies investigate report of sheen in Gulf

August 18, 2011 

NEW ORLEANS -- Reports of an oil sheen in the Gulf of Mexico didn't faze residents of the coast, where small spills are spotted hundreds of times a year and many people have come to see last year's BP catastrophe as a once-in-a-lifetime event.

Gulf Coast fishermen are back on the water and businesses are again packed with tourists on sandy shores since the disaster that hit last summer, when BP's well blew out of control, spooking tourists away from normally packed communities when beaches were left coated in crude.

BP said Thursday that the shiny substance floating on the water's surface didn't come from its operations, and officials said it had since dissipated. Reports of sheen are common: More than 200 were called in last year in an area far from BP's well where the new sheen was reported, and 13 were reported Wednesday alone off Louisiana's coast.

Residents say they aren't afraid of a disaster like the one last summer, when millions of gallons of crude spewed into the Gulf and many scientists and fishermen wondered if the region would ever recover.

"This was probably a once-in-a-lifetime thing this spill here, the big BP oil spill," said Rocky Ditcharo, a 45-year-old shrimp dock owner in Plaquemines Parish, the finger of land south of New Orleans where the Mississippi River empties into the Gulf. He looked upon the oil industry favorably, even though last year's spill threatened to ruin his way of life.

"I'm not mad at the oil industry about what happened. You can't hate them unless they went out of their way to intentionally do something. Accidents happen. Nobody wants to kill off a bunch of wildlife, shrimp and fish."

Federal officials and oil companies were still investigating the source of the new sheen, which according to an initial anonymous report was from a leaking abandoned well. The size of the sheen was not released.

BP said Thursday tests indicated the substance near an abandoned well in the Green Canyon, an undersea area encompassing thousands of miles far from the company's blown-out Macondo well, was silt from the Gulf floor. The U.S. Coast Guard said the sheen was not large enough to warrant a cleanup; even small amounts of oil can lead to a large sheen on the water.

Sheens are frequently reported in the Gulf, many of them small and a result of the 3,200 oil and gas drilling operations in the Gulf. Leaked fuel from ships can also create sheens, along with oil that naturally seeps from the seafloor or leaks from abandoned or plugged wells. For instance, the Coast Guard said several sheens reported in the past two weeks came from natural seepage or releases from government-approved discharge points on offshore platforms.

Many sheens are never investigated and disappear before anyone determines where they came from. In 2010, for instance, there were 210 spills or sheens reported in the Green Canyon area. About a quarter of the calls described "unknown sheens," without a known source. More than half -- 112 of those reported -- originated from platforms, but many of the reports are unverified.

There are thousands of abandoned oil and gas wells in the Gulf that are not monitored for leaks after they're plugged.

But, according to Kenneth Arnold, a Houston-based offshore engineering expert, a dead well will leak only if the cement job to close it in was not done properly. He said offshore regulations for closing in wells are stringent.

Yet reports of sheen get much more attention since the BP oil spill, when a drilling rig explosion killed 11 men and sent millions of gallons of oil spewing into the Gulf in what became the worst offshore spill in U.S. history. The coastal tourism industry struggled amid images of tar-coated beaches and oil-stained birds. Many business owners had complained that people canceled vacation plans even in places where oil never washed ashore.

On Thursday, business groups affirmed the region was making a strong comeback.

"It's been a good summer," said Chris Laborde of the Gulf Coast Alliance, a regional business group set up after the BP spill to attract tourists and investors to the Gulf Coast. "From the tourism side, it's been good. Fishing has been superb. Everything is coming out clean (from the spill). It's a lot better than people anticipated."

He said Gulf Coast residents aren't worried a spill on the scale of the BP disaster would be repeated any time soon.

"This one serious accident was out of 40,000-50,000 drillings that have occurred over decades," he said.

And without evidence the BP spill ruined the Gulf's ecosystem, many people seem relaxed. Seafood sampling has found little to no contamination, and scientists have not found the kind of ecosystem-altering damage some predicted.

"All the tests are coming back that the seafood is safe, and that's blessing," said Bridgette Varone, the executive director of the Mississippi Gulf Coast Hospitality & Restaurant Association. The bigger challenge, she said, has been overcoming consumers' perceptions.

Laborde agreed, noting the spill was similar to the aftermath of 2005's Hurricane Katrina, "when people thought New Orleans was flooded years later."


Associated Press writers Janet McConnaughey and Bill Fuller in New Orleans, Toby Sterling in Amsterdam, Dina Cappiello in Washington, Harry R. Weber in Miami and Raphael G. Satter in London contributed to this report.

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