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Where Is All that Oil Waste Going?

For weeks now we’ve seen hundreds, thousands of haz-matted workers bending over along beaches or hanging out of small boats attempting to clean up the mess that has begun to invade Louisiana’s beaches and wetlands.

On the beaches you could see the piles of plastic bags mounting, filled with oil and oil-marred sand. The boats were piled with more white plastic bags filled with absorbent, diaper-like cloths workers are using to try and soak oil from the surface and nobly clean it off the grasses, stalk by stalk. Out to sea, bigger fishing boats were similarly filling even more white plastic bags, booms and absorbent paper full of oil skimmed off the surface of the Gulf.

My question from the beginning has been, Where is all that trash headed?

My experience around the world suggests that it probably won’t go too far from the sea. We often we see landfills built within easy blowing and leaching distance from the water. If that’s the case in Louisiana, unless all that garbage is carefully disposed of, the oil that’s been collected to-date will pretty quickly be flowing right back into the system, leaking into aquifers or dirt, on its inevitable return to … the ocean.

(One day off the island of Vis, far off the Croatian border, we kayaked into a pretty, V-shaped bay and headed in. Only to find when we arrived that winds and currents had turned what had looked from a distance to be a pristine beach into a dump. Plastic was piled knee-deep, blown in from all over the Adriatic Sea. An old woman was standing at one end of the beach doing what, to her, was the natural thing: Throwing the plastic back into the sea. When I asked her why, her response was simple: Because that’s where it belongs! Sadly, that’s an attitude still held by too many around the world.)

The 14 million gallons of oil and water that has been sucked up already are apparently destined for what are known as Class 1 nonhazardous injection wells, essentially pipes that extend far below the earth’s surface and deliver the gunk into “porous layers of sand 7,000 feet below.” (NPR did a great story on waste yesterday, including a description of why the oil we’re seeing is so red; it turns that color once it becomes 60 percent water.)

In Louisiana the promise is that all those white plastic bags – which now must number in the tens, maybe even hundreds of thousands – plus all the contaminated gear the workers are wearing are headed for lined landfills, approved by the state’s Department of Environmental Quality. Both private companies and government workers are hoping to get big BP paychecks for the all the overtime they’re putting in making sure all of this waste is properly disposed. Apparently, thanks to the state’s long relationship with hurricanes, there is still plenty of available landfill space.

And what’s to happen to all the oil now being sucked from the spewing well and sent a mile up to a waiting ship? I had imagined a fleet of smaller tankers running back and forth in order to download the ship as it topped off, but that apparently is too cost-and-time-inefficient. Instead, all that oil and gas coming from the bottom will soon be burned.

The ship sitting on the surface can only process 756,000 gallons of oil a day; the report is that they are bringing up 420,000 a day. All that oil needs to be gotten rid of so from the ship’s storage tanks it will be “sent down a boom, turned into a mist and ignited using a burner to burn the oil.” Keep in mind, this has yet to be tested. That’s to happen this weekend.

Two more ships are on the way, to stand by.

Estimates – even official BP estimates – now have the well spewing somewhere from 600,000 to 1.8 million gallons a day. Take the high number and you’ve got an Exxon Valdez equivalent happening every six days. Quite a bit lower than BP’s initial estimate of no-harm to 1,000 barrels a day.

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