1979's Ixtoc oil well blowout in Gulf of Mexico has startling parallels to current disaster
CIUDAD DEL CARMEN, Mexico -- With each failed attempt to cap the oil spill in the Gulf, the nightmare intensified. Some days, the oil sent a pungent odor over city streets, causing people headaches. Always, there was fear. Residents worried the crude would forever foul the sandy beaches dotting their shores and wipe out habitat for shrimp and fish in a place where thousands of people made their living from the sea.
The 1979 Ixtoc I exploratory oil well blowout in the Bay of Campeche caused what was then history's largest accidental marine oil spill, spewing at least 3 million barrels of crude into the Gulf of Mexico -- an amount that may have already been surpassed by the Macondo well blowout on April 20. As the BP disaster will doubtlessly change New Orleans and coastal Louisiana, Ixtoc profoundly remade Mexico's Ciudad del Carmen, the nearest community.
But the changes were surprising in ways. Though it took 10 months for the oil company to finally plug the leak, the threat of environmental catastrophe never fully materialized. Ciudad del Carmen managed to evolve and even prosper -- in the process growing into a much larger city than it had ever been.
The Ixtoc disaster and recovery offer some hope for southeastern Louisiana that the fallout from the April 20 explosion of the Deepwater Horizon will not be as grim as some prognosticators have suggested. Certainly, the Ixtoc saga is a far more optimistic one than that of Alaska's Prince William Sound, which still suffers from the Exxon Valdez spill of 1989.
"There was recovery within a couple of years over several different habitats for several different organisms," said Wes Tunnell, a marine biologist at Texas A & M University-Corpus Christi. Ixtoc "is not having a wide effect today."
Oil and gas gushing, an explosion, then fire
The disaster started early on the morning of June 3, 1979, when oil and gas gushed to 100 feet above the platform of the rig drilling the Ixtoc well. That set off an explosion, and the platform caught fire. Jose del Carmen Hernandez Priego, today the president of a shrimpers' cooperative, still remembers how the plume burned brightly enough for him to see it at night from the docks in Ciudad del Carmen.
"It was like the whole area was cast in an orange glow," he said.
All 71 workers aboard evacuated safely, but the rig sank to the ocean floor.
About 30,000 barrels of crude began spewing from Ixtoc into the Bay of Campeche each day. In scenes that would seem familiar to New Orleanians, officials from Pemex, the state-owned oil company, fought back with boom and dispersants sprayed from airplanes. They had American contractors try to plug the spill by shooting dense mud and balls of rubber, lead and steel into the pipe -- an early "top kill." The "top hat" made an appearance, too: A Houston company built a 365-ton steel cone dubbed "the sombrero" and tried to place it over the well.
High seas badly damaged the 39-foot-wide, 20-foot-tall sombrero when officials first tried to position it over the wellhead. On the second try, they succeeded, but it didn't work as well as hoped.
The various efforts succeeded in reducing Ixtoc's flow by about 20,000 barrels a day. But it would not be until March 1980 that Pemex finally plugged the out-of-control well for good with relief wells. The victory was hard-won. For nearly a year, the 30,000 people then living in Carmen, many of them shrimpers and fishers, had their hopes dashed anew with every report of another failed capping attempt.
Retired shrimp boat captain Manuel Toh Alvarado, 74, recalled how his colleagues would greet each other after the morning news: "Oh no. Their plan didn't work out again."
"We all followed it very closely," said Toh, who now owns a convenience store. "It was a drag."
Tar balls, oil lapping at beaches
Scary and depressing as the crisis was, Carmen was mostly spared. The currents carried slicks up to nine miles long and one mile wide away from the tense city, toward the shores of the southeastern Mexican states of Tamaulipas and Veracruz, and then to Texas.
Residents of Carmen "weren't happy that the oil was heading away from us, since it was going to damage other areas," city historian Daniel Cantarell said. "But there definitely was a sense of relief" that the slicks drifted away from places such as the Laguna de Terminos, a key breeding ground for shrimp and fish crucial to Ciudad del Carmen's seafood-based economy.
Thick oil blanketed beaches in Texas by August. Tar balls washed up on sands not far from hotel lobbies.
When oil reached the Texas beaches, Tunnell, the biologist, thought: "Oh no. This is going to be horrible."
And, at first, he was right.
Some researchers reported acute effects early on. Crabs suffered severe losses in Mexico. More than 1,400 birds -- herons, egrets, terns -- were oiled. Pemex's use of chemical dispersants were believed by some to have put other sea creatures at risk.
Luis Soto, a deep-sea marine biologist from the National Autonomous University of Mexico, found that some of the shrimp he monitored near the Mexican coast grew tumors. Tunnell's studies, meanwhile, revealed that seashore organism populations initially fell by 80 percent. Populations of subtidal organisms, such as marine segmented worms and sea hoppers, dipped 50 percent. He imagined life around the 160 miles or so of affected beaches in Texas would vanish.
But a slew of favorable conditions saved those creatures and their habitats.
According to a 1981 report by the Coordinated Program of Ecological Studies in the Bay of Campeche, nature played the biggest role in attacking the slicks as they floated across the Gulf. Ultraviolet light broke down the oil as it crept toward land. So did oil-eating microorganisms. Hot temperatures spurred evaporation.
The slicks also had a long way to travel before making their way onshore, giving Mexican and American officials time to erect barriers in front of vulnerable ecological areas. On the Mexican beach of Rancho Nuevo, national fisheries agents, with the help of Pemex employees, airlifted thousands of endangered Kemp's Ridley sea turtle hatchlings out of the path of oncoming tar balls.
In the United States, officials boomed off estuaries and positioned stand-by skimming boats. Cleanup crews scraped off about 10,000 cubic yards of "oiled material" from the beaches, according to the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Association.
Hurricane Frederic then completed their efforts, the Minerals Management Service reported. Though the powerful Category 4 storm caused up to $9 billion in damage in Mississippi, Alabama and Florida, its wave action also flushed out 95 percent of Ixtoc oil from Texas beaches back into the Gulf, where nature again attacked it. The spill certainly caused economic hardship. South Padre Island's tourism industry, for example, suffered up to $4.4 million in losses before Pemex stifled the blowout. News reports of oily beaches likely turned off visitors, according to the MMS.
Fishers and shrimpers from Ciudad del Carmen had to pour extra money into fuel and vessel maintenance while traveling to work in areas where the viscous crude would not damage their equipment.
"The oil was so thick that if it got on your nets, you couldn't get it off with anything," said Vicente Casanova Gomez, now 69, a veteran shrimper.
Gulf waters acted as natural cleanser
Even with those obstacles, fishers still managed to amass an impressive catch in 1979 -- when oil was gushing into the Gulf.
Researchers in Campeche found shrimping that year enjoyed a high. The total tonnage of seafood caught in the Gulf of Mexico grew by 5.9 percent compared with the previous 12 months, and octopus capture in the Bay of Campeche beat the previous record by 50 percent.
Tunnell's follow-up research into life near Texas beaches showed that organisms whose populations were apparently reduced by the massive spill replenished themselves within a few years. Soto, for his part, discovered that the shrimp catch two years after Ixtoc was the same as it was the year before, indicating recovery.
Scientists suggested that with the Gulf's natural processes fighting the slicks, waters never saw poisonous or even unusually high concentrations of oil in 1979.
Before June 3 that year, the open Gulf commonly saw concentrations of oil of up to 42 parts per billion. In waters near busy ports, the concentrations were sometimes as high as 200 parts per billion, according to Campeche researchers.
After the Ixtoc disaster, the researchers concluded that the samples they monitored in the Campeche area never surpassed 60 parts per billion.
Soto said, "The lesson to the world was ... that the Gulf's tropical conditions accelerated the decomposition of the petroleum's toxic properties."
There were no reports of large fish kills, in part because many fish have the ability to "swim away from bad water," Tunnell said.
Francisco Arreguin Sanchez, director of a marine sciences center in Mexico, said, "There was less of some species while the spill was going on, but they came back soon after it was capped."
From sleepy fishing village to booming oil town
Ciudad del Carmen, whose roads were once made of sand, never had to contend with any invading oil. But Ixtoc I without a doubt remade the town. The change was set in motion three years before the catastrophe, when a Carmen fisherman named Rudesindo Cantarell reported to government officials that he repeatedly sailed through strange, fuel-like patches while navigating the Bay of Campeche.
Pemex eventually investigated. In waters about 50 miles from Ciudad del Carmen, company executives confirmed the discovery of a massive oil field -- which they named after the fisherman -- and began drilling it in earnest.
After the Ixtoc spill erupted near the Cantarell Field, Pemex's drilling ambitions only increased. The sheer size of the gusher encouraged the company to capitalize on the rest of the massive crude supply, said Daniel Cantarell, Rudesindo's great-nephew. Pemex soon erected drilling platforms all across the waters once menaced by the giant spill. It restricted shrimpers and fishers from accessing the Gulf's replenishing stocks to keep them from interfering with drilling work.
Experts in Ciudad del Carmen say the development of the oil fields -- and the fishing restrictions that the drilling brought -- helped hasten the decline of local shrimping. According to shrimpers' cooperative president Jose Del Carmen Hernandez Priego, everyone competed for catches in an area of water that had been reduced by about 21,000 square miles, roughly the size of West Virginia.
But as the industry disappeared, Ciudad del Carmen's population boomed to more than five times its size at the time of Ixtoc -- officials peg the city's population today at 150,000. Many of those residents moved to town from other countries and other parts of Mexico to work for Pemex or its contractors. Locals hired by those companies were often the sons and daughters of shrimpers, said Vicente Casanova, whose children work in oil.
Many locals count their blessings that the Ixtoc spill did not wipe Ciudad del Carmen out. But they realize that it ultimately forced the town to change.
"The calm fishing village that existed no longer did," said Cantarell, the son and grandson of shrimpers. "When there ceased to be shrimp, God gave us oil." Important differences
Experts repeatedly point out the differences between the Pemex and BP oil pills. The most obvious one: The BP well blowout killed 11 people aboard the Deepwater Horizon rig.
Besides that, though, the Pemex spill never posed a real threat to anything as frail as the Mississippi River delta and its rich wetlands, a nursery for shrimp, oysters and other species. Louisiana's coastline is very sensitive compared to the sandy beaches that resisted Ixtoc's affront. While beaches are relatively easy to cleanse of oil, getting the oil out of the delta's fragile marshlands is much trickier, according to scientists.
Among the solutions in the marshlands are burning them, or sending crews of people armed with rags to try to manually sop them up. Those methods, however, could cause as much damage as a coat of crude.
"You pretty much have to just let nature do its thing," Tunnell said.
The gushing Macondo well's depth of 5,000 feet also poses unique toxicity hazards. BP's massive use of dispersants to combat the spill's plumes at great depths could harm fish larvae and shrimp that thrive below the surface. The shallow Ixtoc blowout never really threatened those organisms.
"It is no simple thing controlling something spreading from so deep," according to Soto, whose research team is monitoring northeastern Mexican waters for signs of BP spill contamination. "In no way do I want to suggest that there will be no consequences."
Still, many scientists say they are waiting "cautiously" for the Gulf of Mexico to show the same resilience today that it did in 1979.
According to Tunnell, "It would certainly provide hope for the people of the northern Gulf."