Oil platform — and its ecosystem — faces demolition

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The dormant oil platform known as High Island 389-A rises out of the Gulf of Mexico about 100 miles southeast of Galveston, Texas.

Corals, sea fans and sponges cover its maze of pipes below the surface. Schools of jack and snapper, solitary grouper and barracuda circle in its shadows. Dive boats periodically stop at the enormous structure, where dolphins, sea turtles and sharks are often spotted.

Now, 30 years after it was built and months after it was abandoned, it is set to be demolished under federal Interior Department rules governing non-producing ocean structures, according to an article in the New York Times. And when it goes, the lush ecosystem that has grown around it also will vanish. There are now about 650 such oil and gas industry relics — known as idle iron — that may meet this fate.

The federal government estimates that the blasts needed to remove one platform kill 800 fish, although others who have observed the process put the number in the thousands. Much of the marine life on or around the structure dies, either from the explosions to separate the platform from its supports or when it is toppled or towed to shore and recycled as scrap metal.

The prospect of losing so much life has brought together an unusual collection of allies hoping to convert High Island and many similar structures into protected reefs.

“These structures attract marine life that normally wouldn’t use the area,” Greg Stuntz, chairman of ocean and fisheries health at the Harte Research Institute for Gulf of Mexico Studies at Texas A&M University-Corpus Christi, told the newspaper. “Much is growing on them, from corals up to marine mammals.”

A typical four-legged platform becomes the equivalent of two to three acres of habitat, according to estimates by government scientists.

The Interior Department gives owners of non-producing platforms one to five years to remove them. High Island’s owner has until January to act.

The platform, built in 1981, falls within the 56-square-mile Flower Garden Banks National Marine Sanctuary, one of 14 federally designated underwater areas protected by the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration’s Office of National Marine Sanctuaries and the only such area in the Gulf.

The Interior Department cites legitimate concerns about the potential for spills from old wells and the risk and expense of removing structures damaged or toppled by storms as reasons for taking them out.

But campaigns to save them are under way, and a coalition has requested a moratorium on removal until at least fall 2013 after more research has been done.

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