ON THE GULF OF MEXICO —
Scientists from several universities are working to learn whether a gas well that blew wild last week off the Louisiana coast has polluted the Gulf of Mexico.
Joseph Montoya, a Georgia Tech biology professor, was leading a research project on a vessel near the site of the 2010 BP oil spill when the gas well, owned by Houston-based Walter Oil & Gas Corp., suffered a blowout on July 23 and later caught fire. All 44 people aboard the Hercules 265 rig working at the site in 154 feet of water were evacuated safely. The rig is owned by Hercules Offshore, also based in Houston.
The well spewed gas and small amounts of oil that produced occasional light sheens on the Gulf surface. Late Wednesday, the well choked itself off. Authorities believe sand and sediments blocked the flow of gas and the fire that damaged the rig burned itself out. Cause of the blowout remains under investigation.
Fining hints about environmental damage was the mission of the team of academics.
“We organized a rapid-response cruise to get some of our scientists out here,” Montoya said Saturday while near the Hercules rig.
A 10-member crew used buckets, hoses and canisters to collect water samples to measure levels of methane gas, radon gas, bacterial abundance and activity, among other things. The Coast Guard wouldn’t let their boat closer than 5 miles from the rig.
They also released surface floats that will drift with the current, tracking the likely path of any contamination from the damaged rig. The “drifters” have global positioning devices and transmitters.
As the researchers worked in choppy Gulf waters, federal and private vessels bustled around the Hercules rig, about 55 miles southwest of Grand Isle, La.
Federal officials said natural gas detectors and high-capacity water hoses were being installed on the rig, while another rig was readied to drill relief well for a permanent plug.