Capping Mexican spill before it splashes Texas again

The "eyes of Texas" are once again upon Ixtoc I, an offshore Mexican well that has been spilling oil into the Gulf of Mexico since June 3, 1979. Officials of the Mexican state oil company, Pemex, are hoping the well will be capped this month. Texas Gov. William Clements Jr., founder of the oil drilling firm that leased the rig to the Mexicans, said recently that based on conversations with American oil officials working on the runaway well, he expects it to be sealed within a few weeks.

Yet some state officials are skeptical about such predictions and are urging stronger US action to be sure Mexican oil does not drift north to Texas beaches when ocean currents in the gulf shift northward sometime in late February or early March. The US Coast Guard is monitoring the spill with weekly overflights.

Last summer, seasonal currents brought the oil into US waters. The Texas tourist trade was severely affected when the state's southern beaches were tarred, and there remains concern over the long-term effects of the oil on the coastal environment and the Texas fishing industry.

The well has spilled more oil than any other disaster in history. Estimates range from 110 million gallons to 160 million gallons. However, the flow rate has been significantly reduced from more than 1 million gallons a day to an estimated 50,000 gallons at present.

"We're on notice now. Last summer it was was hard to believe the oil would travel to Texas, but it did," assessed Texas Land Commissioner Bob Armstrong. He said if the well is capped soon, the already spilled oil would likely break up before it could reach the Texas shore this spring. But Mr. Armstrong was reluctant to accept predictions that the well would be capped soon, based on numerous similar forecasts last year that consistently proved false.

Pemex is drilling another relief well to pump fluid into the reservoir feeding the blowout to equalize the natural pressure now forcing the oil out. One relief well is already complete but apparently has not been able to supply enough pressure to stem the flow of crude. The second well is nearing completion. The flow of oil has been slowed by injecting lead balls into the ruptured well, a process begun last fall. An attempt to collect the escaping oil in a large funnel-shaped cap, called a "sombrero" did not work and the cap has been removed.

Mr. Armstrong said if the well is not sealed by late February, the US government should ask permission from the Mexicans to go to the site and collect oil to prevent it from later drifting north. At present, there are no cleanup efforts at the well.

"The well site looks about like it did last summer," said Harry Vaughan of the Coast Guard in Corpus Christi, where the American response to the spill has been centered.

The disaster has been costly. Richard Golob, executive editor of the Oil Spill Intelligence Report, a newsletter published in Cambridge, Mass., enumerates these expenses as of mid-December: The lost oil is worth $89 million; American lawsuits to recover damages make claims worth $365 million; the US government has spent more than $6 million in cleanup costs; Pemex has spent $70 million trying to cap the well and more than $40 million in cleanup expenses.

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