Kill Zone: Cleaning up oil junk, killing tens of thousands of fish

Published: Feb. 26, 2013 at 12:17 AM CST|Updated: Feb. 26, 2013 at 2:19 AM CST
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An offshore oil platform is demolished in this still frame from a YouTube video
An offshore oil platform is demolished in this still frame from a YouTube video

New Orleans, La. --  A government mandate to clean up the oil industry's junk in the Gulf of Mexico results each year in the killing of tens of thousands of fish.

The program, known as "Idle Iron," requires oil and gas companies to remove facilities within five years after they become no longer useful.  In about half the cases last year, contractors used explosives in dismantling platforms.

"Kind of made sense," concedes Steve Hartley.  He runs Temento's, a dive shop catering to spearfishing enthusiasts. "If you throw a can in the water, you go get it and take it out."

However, Hartley insists, "We've learned that that's a mistake."

A videotape obtained by WPMI-TV in Mobile shows one platform demolition and the resulting kill of red snapper.

Terry Migaud, one of Hartley's customers, argues the demolitions are causing untold damage below the surface.

Migaud says the legs of old, offshore platforms "create a unique, unusual habitat unlike anyplace in the world."

Divers find coral, small fish, large predators lurking below the surface, an entire vertical ecosystem.

"The only place it's legal in this country, and probably the world, to kill coral and take fish out of season is when you blow up an oil (platform)," Migaud said.

The Bureau of Safety and Environmental Enforcement estimates the platform demolitions can cause up to 750 snapper deaths.

"There are generally fish kills associated with every removal operation," said T.J. Broussard, chief of the Environmental Enforcement Branch for the BSEE Gulf region.

Technically, operators do not blow up the platforms, but instead use charges to cut the piles pinning platform legs to the seabed.  Explosives generally are used about 25 feet below the mud line.

Last year, companies removed 254 facilities, using explosives 123 times, according to BSEE figures.

"We've done several studies on encouraging non-explosive cutting tools," Broussard told WPMI.   "But they are time-consuming in some cases."

Companies submit their permit applications based on their own assessment of the risk.

Among the considerations, regulators say, are safety issues for humans.

"Where it may be better for the protected species, it's more of a danger for the divers," Broussard said.

He pointed out explosives cut the number of men on site and the time the job exposes divers to often challenging conditions.

Since the government does not require companies to report fish kills, no one knows precisely how the practice affects marine life.  However, based on the number of demolitions in 2012, BSEE reports as many as 96,750 red snapper could have been killed by explosive-severance during the year.

The Southeast Fisheries Science Center and the South Atlantic Fishery Management Council estimate between 25-45 million snapper are killed annually as bycatch in Gulf of Mexico shrimp trawls.   Another 3-4 million are estimated to be killed by recreational and commercial fishermen.

However, red snapper-- such as the ones shown in the WPMI video-- are an especially sensitive topic, given limits the government has set on the season and the total catch.

"If this fish is so endangered, how can they be allowed to blow it up when there are other ways to cut it off manually?" said Paul Cociz, an avid spearfisherman.

Using explosives can achieve huge cost savings for the industry.

"Explosive charges are generally set by two or three technicians," Broussard said. "Non-explosive tools are generally manpowered.  You have to manhandle them, get them into tubulars and make the cuts."

BSEE also has built checks into the system, according to Broussard, to protect mammals and highly-endangered turtles.

Staffers with the National Marine Fisheries Service conduct observations prior to every demolition.  Should they detect a pod of dolphins that refuse to leave the area, or turtles, Broussard said regulators have the option of forcing the company to alter its plans.

Hartley argues for more scientific studies on the effects.  "They're moving so fast," he tells us. "We might find out how critical the rigs were after it's too late."