Damage to marine industry interests from Hurricane Ida along the Louisiana coast is still being assessed, but early flights by the U.S. Coast Guard discovered an oil slick in the Gulf of Mexico that stretched on for more than 12 miles, a harbinger of more trouble when floodwaters flow down the Mississippi River.
The oil spill — still ongoing according to reports by The Associated Press — appears to be coming from a source about two miles south of Port Fourchon, La. The Category 4 hurricane made landfall here, blasting that port with an estimated 12- to14-foot storm surge and wind gusts in excess of 190 mph. Efforts continue to get oil and gas production up and running in the wake of the hurricane
Fortunately, recent reports indicate the growing spill appears to be remaining offshore and drifting eastward along the Gulf Coast.
No official estimate has yet been made about how much oil is flowing into the Gulf. AP has reported Coast Guard spokesman Lt. John Edwards said response teams are monitoring reports and satellite imagery to determine the scope of the discharge, adding that it is believed to be crude oil from an undersea pipeline owned by Talos Energy.
A Houston-based energy company, Talos, is investigating the cause of the leak but claims the company's properties are not the source. Still, Talos has reportedly hired Clean Gulf Associates to place a containment boom in the area and run skimmer vessels to remove oil from the water.
It’s notable that Port Fourchon is the primary service hub for hundreds of offshore oil and gas rigs as well as the site of oil terminals and pipelines that account for 90 percent of oil and gas production from the Gulf. It’s also been reported that extensive flooding and petroleum spills occurred in the waters at the Phillips 66 Alliance Refinery south of New Orleans.
Hit by the 150mph winds and storm surge, a levee meant to protect the sprawling Phillips 66 Refinery located directly along the Mississippi River breached. It allowed floodwaters to flow in and back out as the storm surge receded. Even after the immediate pollution and infrastructure problems, observers can foresee more troubles for the Gulf that will surely impact recreational boating and fishing.
The Gulf Dead Zone
There’s little doubt that higher levels of algae-triggering phosphorus and nitrogen will now be pouring into the Gulf from the Mississippi River for some time to come. Specifically, streams and rivers that run through farmlands in the many states impacted by Ida’s flooding rains will dump such chemicals into the Mississippi.
Scientists had already announced this year's Gulf of Mexico dead zone — an area of low to no oxygen that kills fish and marine life — was expected to be approximately 6,334 square miles this year. That’s the equivalent of over four million acres of habitat unavailable to fish and bottom species.
But the forecast models assumed typical weather conditions and could not factor in Hurricane Ida’s storm surge and the flooding rains that poured down on multiple states. Clearly, the model results underestimated the measured size of the dead zone that will now occur this year.
The excess nutrients primarily from farms and inadequate municipal waste treatment facilities located in the upland watersheds will drain via the Mississippi into the Gulf and stimulate massive algae growth. The algae eventually die, sink and decompose. Throughout this process, it’s oxygen-consuming bacteria that decay the algae. The resulting low oxygen levels near the bottom are insufficient to support most marine life, rendering the habitat unusable and forcing species to move to other areas or die. Even if the fish exposed to hypoxic waters are somehow able to survive, it has been found to alter fish growth rates, reproduction, availability and any prospects for successful recreational or commercial fishing.
Overall, the damaging waters expected from the Mississippi for some time is bad enough. But couple that with the 26 calls to the National Response Center hotline operated by the Coast Guard that reported oil leaks or spills in the storm zone, and the total impact on boating and fishing is yet to be quantified. And it won’t be pretty.