The plane's engine roars as it idles on the runway last Wednesday, July 14. The four propellers on the Army National Guard's C-130 blasted waves of suffocatingly humid Mississippi July air at former Gov. William Winter and me as we board the plane.
This trip is for the House of Representatives' oil-spill committee, formed by Speaker Billy McCoy, D-Reinzi, shortly after the Deepwater Horizon explosion. Rep. John Mayo, D-Clarksdale, chairman of the Conservation and Water Resources committee organized this flight for north Mississippi lawmakers so they can better answer constituents' questions about the oil slick. The committee will report their findings to the speaker after taking in what they see on the flight.
As the plane takes off, the city of Gulfport transforms into a diorama below us, where miniature houses sit in neat rows in neighborhoods behind the beaches and SUVs and pickup trucks bustling down Highway 90 look like Matchbox toys.
The plane levels out, and I press my face to the window, looking for the oily monster that's taken over the Gulf of Mexico and the majority of news coverage for the last three months. The staff sergeant who escorted us aboard points out the window at Petit Bois Island, the first of the Great Barrier Islands the oil spill affected. He tells us how to know the difference between algae, shallow water and oil sheen when we fly over the Gulf. Oil sheen is multicolored when the sunlight hits it at the correct angle, while algae and shallow parts of the Gulf look like darker spots in the water.
Soon we fly over what remains of the Chandeleur Islands; the remnants that survived Katrina are slowly eroding away, as oil sheen and tar balls continue to wash ashore. It's a beautiful, clear day, and visibility is quite high considering the rain that had been lingering around Mississippi's three coastal counties. One of the pilots gestures toward a small, lonely-looking structure in the distance. He tells me it's one of several deepwater drilling rigs, all of which have had their operations put on hold for at least six months. Some of them are sitting in the midst of oil sheen from the Deepwater Horizon blowout.
The clear blue sky has become gray and overcast. The pilot tells me we're here, at the source. Sickly orange hues sporadically dot the oil sheen, the mark of oil affected by chemical dispersants. I can't press the shutter button on my camera quickly enough. The plane circles the boats and relief wells scrambling around the oil, flames shooting out from the bow of several vessels, attempting to burn off crude and natural gas that has come to the surface.
The Deepwater Horizon rig is, of course, in pieces a mile below, along with miles-long plumes of oil that lurk just underneath the booms and skimmers attempting to stop the surface oil. The legislators all crowd around the windows, shouting over the engine's roar in shock and dismay as they observe the oil. The sea of oil completely dwarfs the size of a barge spreading a green line of Corexit in the midst of miles of sheen.
The sheer magnitude of this oil spill is almost impossible to comprehend, as is the manpower-heavy response. More than three-dozen large vessels are hard at work at the site, conducting controlled burnoffs by sequestering patches of oil with booms, then burning it off with flamethrowers. Other boats serve as transponder vessels to send back monitoring of the spill's progress to the unified command center in Mobile, Ala. But in spite of so much response and resources and money poured into stopping this from getting any worse, generous estimates place the cleanup and recovery efforts at five to 10 years, minimum.
Up until the well was capped last week, the oil gushed from a 21-inch diameter pipe that's been belching at least 60,000 barrels of crude each day; some experts say it could be as much as 100,000 barrels. With 42 gallons in each barrel, 60,000 barrels of oil is 2,520,000 gallons of oil daily. A 2010 Ford F-150 has a fuel capacity of 26 gallons, and gets roughly 21 miles per gallon on highways. Since the Earth is 24,859 miles in circumference, that means a new F-150 that, in a hypothetical case, ran on crude oil instead of refined gasoline, would need 546 gallons to drive around the Earth. This means enough oil is gushing out into the Gulf of Mexico to drive an F-150 around the planet up to 4,615 times every day.
BP capped the Macondo well after 88 days--hopefully ending the flow of oil--but it already did catastrophic damage. Assuming a maximum of 4,200,000 gallons of oil have been gushing nonstop from the wellhead blowout for 88 days, that means up to 370,000,000 gallons of oil have already flooded into the Gulf ecosystem. That's the equivalent of 33.6 Exxon Valdez-sized spills.
The National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration has closed 83,927 square miles of federal waters because of the disaster, which is a little more than 35 percent of the Gulf's economic zone, and 35,497 square miles larger than the state of Mississippi.
President Barack Obama tapped U.S. Navy Secretary and former Mississippi governor Ray Mabus to craft a long-term Gulf Coast restoration plan. Mabus, who was in Jackson last week, said $10 million from BP is being used to draft the recovery strategy with the help of researchers and scientists at several of Mississippi's universities.