Could Gulf Oil Spill Threaten Drinking Water?
June 12, 2010
We’ve all seen the pictures of oil drenched birds and read the stories about how BP’s blown oil well has devastated an entire fishing industry. Now hydrocarbon contamination of sea water used for feedstock of drinking water may be the next concern for those on the Gulf and Atlantic coasts.
According to the U.S. Department of the Interior, U.S. Geological Survey, of all the industrialized countries, the United States is one of the most important users of desalinated water. In Florida alone there are more than 130 desalination plants, and more are under construction according to a 2008 study reported by The Institute of Food and Agricultural Sciences at the University of Florida.
This Oil Spill Poses Threats We Haven’t Seen Before
The problem of an oil spill a mile below the water’s surface goes beyond the extraordinary challenges of capping a well in such deep water. Most spills occur on the surface, and while the effects can be devastating, we can see where the oil is, and we have experience in dealing with it. "This is a three-dimensional spill," Columbia University oceanographer Ajit Subramaniam told The Wall Street Journal’s Robert Lee Holtz, "The physics, the chemistry and the biology action are very different when you have oil released from below."
Much of this oil has remained off shore and under the surface, which might be a bit of a break for nearby coastal communities, or it may be a threat for a far wider area. There are some 1,500 natural seep holes in the seafloor of the Gulf that leak an estimated 15 million gallons of oil annually. Most of that oil is broken down naturally by bacteria. But the BP well spewed up to 50,000 barrels a day; so it would take a lot of bacteria and a long time to eat all that oil before it does further damage.
Holtz quotes Coast Guard Adm. Thad Allen, the national incident commander, "We are not really dealing with a monolithic spill….We're dealing with about a 200-mile radius around the well site with thousands—maybe hundreds of thousands—of smaller patches of oil."
Billows of Oil Drops Too Small to See
As Holtz observed, low concentrations of oil are spreading "on subsea currents in billows of oil drops too small to see." The question is will the oil that remains below the surface be diluted enough by the sea, or broken down fast enough by bacteria so as not to pose a threat, for example, to those communities using sea water as feed stock for potable water.
According to Dallas-based FCI Environmental Inc., facilities along the Gulf Coast and the Atlantic Coast that use sea water for feed stock will need technologies in place that are capable of detecting hydrocarbon contamination of supply water. FCI Environmental is a 35-year-old, private company that develops, manufactures, markets and licenses fiber optic chemical sensors that produce continuous, real-time information on pollutants and contaminants in a variety of materials. The company’s PetroSentry in situ monitoring system uses fiber optic chemical sensor technology to detect total petroleum hydrocarbons (TPH) in water.
Other Challenges to Our Water Systems, Other Solutions
Are there other challenges to our water systems that are posed by this oil spill? Are there other companies offering solutions? Post a comment here on this blog article or send me an email.
Photo Credit: A Brown Pelican in Florida by Terry Foote.