* Research needed to locate, assess bomb risk
* Gulf of Mexico permit activity up after deadly Macondo blowout
By Eileen O'Grady
HOUSTON, Sept 28 (Reuters) - Millions of pounds of unexploded bombs dumped in the Gulf of Mexico by the U.S. government after World War Two pose a significant risk to offshore drilling, according to Texas oceanographers.
It is no secret that the United States, along with other governments, dumped munitions and chemical weapons in oceans from 1946 until the practice was banned in the 1970s by U.S. law and international treaty, said William Bryant, a Texas A&M University professor of oceanography.
As technological advances allow oil companies to push deeper into the waters of the Gulf of Mexico, these forgotten hazards pose a threat as the industry picks up the pace of drilling after BP Plc's deadly Macondo well blowout in 2010 that lead to the largest oil spill in U.S. history.
Unexploded ordnance has been found in the offshore zone known as Mississippi Canyon where the Macondo well was drilled.
The Bureau of Ocean Energy Management (BOEM) will auction 38 million acres of oil and gas leases in the central gulf in March.
The U.S. government designated disposal areas for unexploded ordnance, known as UXO, off the Atlantic and Pacific coasts, as well as in the Gulf of Mexico. But nearly 70 years after the areas were created, no one knows exactly how much was dumped, or where the weapons are, or whether they present a danger to humans or marine life.
"These bombs are a threat today and no one knows how to deal with the situation," said Bryant. "If chemical agents are leaking from some of them, that's a real problem. If many of them are still capable of exploding, that's another big problem."
Disposal zones were designated from Florida to Texas, said Bryant, who will discuss his research findings at the International Dialogue on Underwater Munitions conference that begins Monday in San Juan, Puerto Rico.
While the practice of dumping bombs and chemical weapons, including mustard and nerve gas, in the ocean ended 40 years ago some effects are just beginning to be seen, said Terrance Long, founder of the underwater munitions conference.
"You can find munitions in basically every ocean around the world, every major sea, lake and river," Long said. "They are a threat to human health and the environment."
The oil industry is no stranger to leftovers from the World War Two.
Last year, BP shut its key Forties crude pipeline in the North Sea for five days while it removed a 13-foot (4-metre) un exploded German mine found resting cozily next to the pipeline that transports up to 40 percent of the UK's oil production.
BP discovered the mine during a routine pipeline inspection, then spent several months devising a plan to lift the bomb and move it far enough from the pipeline to safely detonate it.
In the Gulf of Mexico, which accounts for 23 percent of U.S. oil production and 7 percent of domestic natural gas output, the hazards are known, but generally ignored.
In 2001, BP and Shell found the wreckage of the U-166, a German World War II submarine, 45 miles (72 kms) from the mouth of the Mississippi River during an underwater survey for a pipeline needed to transport natural gas to shore.
Bryant said he and colleague Neil Slowey have documented discarded bombs and leaking barrels over the past 20 years while conducting research for energy companies in the Gulf of Mexico.
Records of where these munitions were dumped are incomplete and experts believe many dangerous cargoes were "short-dumped," or discarded outside designated zones.
Bryant said he has come across 500-pound (227-kgs) bombs about 60 miles off the Texas coast and other ordnance 100 miles offshore, outside designated zones. A t least one Gulf pipeline was laid across a chemical weapon dump site south of the mouth of the Mississippi River, he said.
While the risk of an underwater bomb exploding may be small, environmental damage from chemical weapons, such as mustard gas, is worrisome and needs to be researched, Bryant said.
"We would like to do a survey to be able to say if (this material) is harmful or not," he said. "The condition of these barrels is deteriorating, so does it affect anything or not? We ought to know."
Calls and emails to various companies with wells or pipelines in the gulf seeking comment were not returned. Neither the U.S. Army, nor the BOEM would comment as well.
Sonar data from a routine seabed survey performed by C&C Technologies identified munitions in about 3,000 feet of water near a proposed project, according to a paper presented at the 2007 Offshore Technology Conference.
After determining the bombs presented a low-to-moderate risk, the project continued as planned.
The oil and gas industry needs to do more address the problem, Long said. "It makes more sense to start dealing with the munitions from a risk-mitigation standpoint to be able to conduct operations in those areas rather than trying to avoid that they are there," Long said.
The BOEM, which regulates offshore drilling in federal waters, warns companies seeking leases to drill or add pipelines about the existence of unexploded ordnance and requires underwater surveys to assess and manage the numerous natural and manmade hazards.
Niger Delta ExxonMobil Spill, Nigeria - May 2010
In Nigeria's Akwa Ibom State, an ExxonMobil pipeline ruptured on May 1 and spilled over a million gallons of oil, <a href="http://www.guardian.co.uk/world/2010/may/30/oil-spills-nigeria-niger-delta-shell" target="_hplink">reported the <em>Guardian</em></a>. The leak continued for seven days before it was stopped. <a href="http://www.huffingtonpost.com/omoyele-sowore/the-oil-spill-no-ones-tal_b_649220.html" target="_hplink">HuffPost blogger Omoyele Sowore explained</a> in July 2010 that an oil spill from ExxonMobil operations was nothing new to the country. He wrote that an "environmental catastrophe [had] been going on since December 2009." He described the toll on Nigeria: "There's oil on the surface of the ocean, wildlife coated in crude, fishermen losing their businesses."
Trans-Alaska Pipeline Spill - May 2010
In May 2010, several thousand barrels of oil spilled from the Trans-Alaska pipeline "during a scheduled pipeline shutdown at a pump station near Fort Greely," <a href="http://www.huffingtonpost.com/2010/05/26/alaska-oil-spill-trans-al_n_589974.html" target="_hplink">explained AP</a>. No injuries were reported and officials said the spill was likely "limited to the gravel on top of the containment area's line."
Red Butte Creek Spill, Utah - June 2010
In June 2010, a Chevron pipeline ruptured and spilled oil into a creek near Salt Lake City, Utah. It was first estimated that over 400 to 500 barrels spilled into the creek, which leads into the Great Salt Lake, <a href="http://www.huffingtonpost.com/2010/06/12/utah-oil-spill-500-gallon_n_610232.html#s99698" target="_hplink">reported AP</a>. Around 150 birds were "identified for rehabilitation." The <a href="http://www.huffingtonpost.com/2010/06/14/utah-oil-spill-officials-_n_611014.html" target="_hplink">oil did not reach the Great Salt Lake</a>, however. <a href="http://www.huffingtonpost.com/2010/07/14/chevron-cited-for-oil-spi_n_646340.html" target="_hplink">Chevron was later cited for the spill</a>, which released an estimated 33,000 gallons in total. In March 2012, <a href="http://www.huffingtonpost.com/huff-wires/20120324/us-oil-spill-utah/" target="_hplink">a group of 66 residents of a Salt Lake City neighborhood sued Chevron</a> for damage caused by the Red Butte Creek spill and a smaller spill in December 2011.
Kalamazoo River Spill, Michigan - July 2010
In late July 2010, an Enbridge pipeline in southwestern Michigan sprung a leak and <a href="http://www.huffingtonpost.com/2010/07/27/michigan-oil-spill-among_n_661196.html" target="_hplink">spilled over 800,000 gallons of oil into a creek</a> which flows into the Kalamazoo River. By August, a regional EPA administrator said that significant progress had been made at the site, but "the agency cautioned that it will take months to complete the cleanup," <a href="http://www.huffingtonpost.com/2010/08/02/michigan-oil-spill-epa-of_n_667556.html" target="_hplink">reported AP</a>. By the end of September, <a href="http://www.huffingtonpost.com/2010/09/27/michigan-oil-pipeline-res_n_741233.html" target="_hplink">the pipeline -- which travels from Ontario to Indiana -- was back in operation</a>. The EPA later <a href="http://www.huffingtonpost.com/huff-wires/20111116/us-michigan-river-oil-spill/" target="_hplink">reported that about 1.1 million gallons of oil were recovered</a>, but pipeline operator Enbridge said that it would stick with previous estimates that only about 843,000 gallons were spilled.
Xingag Harbor Spill, Dailan, China - July 2010
In July 2010, China experienced what was reported as the "<a href="http://www.huffingtonpost.com/2010/07/21/china-oil-spill-grows-off_n_653852.html#s120708" target="_hplink">country's largest reported oil spill</a>" after a pipeline rupture near the northeastern port city of Dailan. Several days after the spill, cleanup efforts were underway over a 165 square mile (430 square kilometer) area of the Yellow Sea. The Chinese government reported that about 1,500 tons or 461,790 gallons of oil had spilled, but <a href="http://www.huffingtonpost.com/2010/07/30/china-oil-spill-far-bigge_n_665038.html#s120708" target="_hplink">experts contended that the spill could have been "dozens of times larger,"</a> reported AP.
Peace River Spill, Alberta, Canada - April 2011
In late April 2011, a pipeline in northwestern Alberta began leaking, and created the worst spill in the province in 36 years, <a href="http://www.calgaryherald.com/news/alberta/Rainbow+pipeline+leak+largest+years/4720888/story.html" target="_hplink">reported the <em>Calgary Herald</em></a>. About 28,000 barrels of oil were reportedly spilled from the Rainbow pipeline, which is operated by Plains Midstream Canada. The <em>Globe and Mail</em> revealed that the pipeline operators "<a href="http://www.theglobeandmail.com/report-on-business/oil-on-rainbow-line-halted-8-hours-after-problem-detected/article2013335/" target="_hplink">detected a potential problem nearly eight hours before halting the flow of crude</a>." A nearby school in a First Nation community was closed after residents reported "nausea, burning eyes and other symptoms," and several animals were found dead. In late July, Plains Midstream <a href="http://www.huffingtonpost.ca/2011/07/28/alberta-pipeline-owner-as_n_912796.html" target="_hplink">requested to re-open the pipeline</a> and begin to ship oil to Edmonton again.
Bohai Bay Spill, China - June 2011
In June 2011, an oil <a href="http://www.huffingtonpost.com/2011/07/01/china-offshore-oil-spills-bohai-bay_n_888473.html" target="_hplink">spill occurred about 25 miles off the coast of China's Shandong province</a> in Bohai Bay. A second spill followed in July. In late August, <a href="http://www.huffingtonpost.com/2011/08/26/new-seeps-in-china-spill_n_937809.html" target="_hplink">it was reported</a> that ConocoPhillips had discovered more oil seeps in Bohai Bay, although only "1 to 2 liters (a quarter to a half-gallon) of oil and drilling mud were being released each day." The company reported that the 2011 spills released 700 barrels of oil and 2,500 barrels of drilling mud into the bay and that most of it was recovered. In September, <a href="http://www.huffingtonpost.com/2011/09/05/china-oil-spill-conocophillips_n_949745.html" target="_hplink">China's State Oceanic Administration claimed that oil was still seeping</a> underwater. In early 2012, Texas-based ConocoPhillips <a href="http://www.huffingtonpost.com/huff-wires/20120124/as-china-oil-spill/" target="_hplink">reached a settlement deal with the Chinese government</a> for $160 million.
Yellowstone River Spill, Montana - July 2011
In July 2011, a pipeline beneath Montana's Yellowstone River ruptured and sent an oil plume 25 miles downstream, <a href="http://www.huffingtonpost.com/2011/07/02/yellowstone-oil-spill-pro_n_889363.html" target="_hplink">reported AP</a>. Despite reassurances from ExxonMobil that the pipeline was safe, <a href="http://www.huffingtonpost.com/2011/07/06/yellowstone-river-oil-spill-exxon-mobil_n_891246.html" target="_hplink">the July spill released what was originally estimated to be 42,000 gallons of oil</a>. With other 1,000 workers assisting the cleanup, ExxonMobil <a href="http://www.huffingtonpost.com/2011/11/04/yellowstone-river-cleanup-costs_n_1077106.html" target="_hplink">estimated that it would cost $135 million to clean the river</a>. In January 2012, <a href="http://www.huffingtonpost.com/2012/01/19/exxon-yellowstone-oil-spill_n_1216830.html" target="_hplink">it was reported</a> that ExxonMobil had increased its estimate of the spill size by 500 barrels. AP later <a href="http://www.huffingtonpost.com/2012/04/06/yellowstone-river-spill-response-plan_n_1408328.html" target="_hplink">reported the estimated spill size as 63,000 gallons</a>. <em><strong>CORRECTION:</strong> A previous version of this slide stated the estimated spill size as 63,000 barrels instead of gallons.</em>
North Sea Spill, United Kingdom - Aug. 2011
In August 2011, <a href="http://www.huffingtonpost.com/2011/08/15/north-sea-spill-uk-oil-spill_n_927078.html" target="_hplink">an oil rig off the eastern coast of Scotland began leaking</a> oil into the North Sea. Royal Dutch Shell, which operates the Gannet Alpha oil rig, initially reported that 54,600 gallons of oil were spilled. A second leak soon occurred, turning the spill into the worst in the North Sea in a decade, <a href="http://www.huffingtonpost.com/2011/08/16/north-sea-oil-spill-shell_n_927941.html" target="_hplink">reported AP</a>. Several days later, Shell announced that it had "closed a valve from which oil was spilling into the North Sea," <a href="http://www.huffingtonpost.com/2011/08/19/shell-says-it-has-closed-_n_931379.html" target="_hplink">according to AP</a>. The spill released about 1,300 barrels of oil, which spread out over a 2.5 square mile (6.7 square kilometer) area.
Campos Basin Spill, Rio de Janeiro, Brazil - Nov. 2011
In mid-November 2011, Brazilian authorities began investigating an offshore spill near Rio de Janeiro, <a href="http://www.huffingtonpost.com/2011/11/17/chevron-oil-spill-brazil_n_1100062.html" target="_hplink">reported AP</a>. Chevron initially reported that between 400 and 650 barrels of oil had spilled into the Atlantic, while a nonprofit environmental group using satellite imagery estimated that the spill rate was at least 3,738 barrels per day. Chevron soon claimed full responsibility for the spill. The brazilian division's COO said, Chevron "<a href="http://www.huffingtonpost.com/2011/11/20/brazil-oil-spill-chevron-_n_1104070.html" target="_hplink">takes full responsibility for this incident</a>," and that "any oil on the surface of the ocean is unacceptable to Chevron," reported AP. In December, Brazilian prosecutors announced that they were <a href="http://www.huffingtonpost.com/2011/12/14/brazil-oil-spill-chevron-payment_n_1149554.html"target="_hplink">seeking $10.6 billion in damages</a> from Chevron for the spill that leaked nearly 3,000 barrels of oil. In March 2012, a Brazilian federal judge <a href="http://www.huffingtonpost.com/2012/03/18/brazil-oil-spill-chevron_n_1355923.html" target="_hplink">allowed prosecutors to file criminal charges against Chevron and Transocean</a> and 17 executives from both companies were barred from leaving Brazil.
Rena Spill, New Zealand - Oct. 2011
In October 2011, a Liberian-flagged cargo ship ran aground on a reef in Northern New Zealand and began leaking oil. With oil washing up on shore, a government minister deemed it <a href="http://www.huffingtonpost.com/2011/10/11/new-zealand-oil-spill_n_1004643.html" target="_hplink">the country's largest maritime environmental disaster</a> a week later. Although over 2,000 sea birds were killed by the spill that spilled about 400 tons of fuel oil, <a href="http://www.huffingtonpost.com/2011/11/22/new-zealand-oil-spill-penguins_n_1107289.html" target="_hplink">343 little blue penguins were rescued and cleaned of oil</a>. <em>[<a href="http://www.huffingtonpost.com/2011/12/22/new-zealand-oil-spill-penguins-released_n_1151788.html" target="_hplink">Watch video of the penguins' release into the wild here.</a>]</em> In January, <a href="http://www.huffingtonpost.com/2012/01/10/new-zealand-oil-spill-ship_n_1196568.html" target="_hplink">half of the stricken Rena began sinking</a> into the sea after breaking apart and spilling over 100 cargo containers.
Nigeria Oil Spill - Dec. 2011
The spill, which took place near the coast of Nigeria, was reported as "likely the worst to hit those waters in a decade," <a href="http://www.huffingtonpost.com/2011/12/22/shell-oil-spill-nigeria_n_1164891.html" target="_hplink">according to AP</a>. After two days, the spill had affected 115 miles (185 kilometers) of Nigerian coastline. Several days after the December 20 spill, <a href="http://www.huffingtonpost.com/2011/12/26/shell-nigeria-oil-spill_n_1170198.html" target="_hplink">Shell reported that the leak -- which occurred about 75 miles offshore -- had been contained before it reached the Nigerian coast</a>. The spill, which covered 350 square miles of ocean at its peak, was reported as having released less than "40,000 barrels -- or 1.68 million gallons" of oil.
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CORRECTION:A previous version of this article incorrectly described the unexploded weapons as 'ordinance' rather than ordnance.