Repeating Ixtoc's Oil-Soaked History

Workers hired to pick up oil walk past a family on the beach i

Contract workers hired to pick up oil that washes ashore patrol past a family on Dauphin Island, Ala. Oil believed to be from the Deepwater Horizon oil rig accident began to appear earlier this week on the shores of Alabama. Win McNamee/Getty Images hide caption

itoggle caption Win McNamee/Getty Images
Workers hired to pick up oil walk past a family on the beach

Contract workers hired to pick up oil that washes ashore patrol past a family on Dauphin Island, Ala. Oil believed to be from the Deepwater Horizon oil rig accident began to appear earlier this week on the shores of Alabama.

Win McNamee/Getty Images

Peter W. Klein is a former 60 Minutes producer who runs the International Reporting program at the University of British Columbia's Graduate School of Journalism. He is currently working on a book titled Scare: The Domestic War on Terror.

As a boy growing up in Miami Beach, I spent a lot of time at the ocean and occupied myself searching for shells and sea creatures. In the spring of 1979, a new creature emerged on the sandy shore near my house — a sticky black orb that I thought was some exotic species I'd discovered. My parents and I, and many of the people on the beach, ended up with bits of the tarry goo stuck to our feet, and soon enough the city provided canisters of turpentine that sunbathers could use to clean themselves off.

I know now that the little black creatures were actually "tar balls," the result of a giant oil well explosion in the Gulf of Mexico that happened exactly 31 years ago. On June 3, 1979, the Mexican government's Ixtoc I well exploded off the coast of the Yucatan Peninsula, and it turns out the rig's operators tried some of the same tricks BP has been trying to stop the leak — including a containment dome and the junk shot procedure. They didn't work back then either. The Mexican well continued leaking for nine months, and it was only after new wells were drilled to divert the oil that the biggest accidental oil spill in history stopped. BP is now beginning the process of drilling a relief well too — but the challenge is far greater. The Mexican well was 160 feet down; BP's is 5,000 feet below the surface of the ocean.

Peter W. Klein

Peter W. Klein is a former 60 Minutes producer who runs the International Reporting program at the University of British Columbia's Graduate School of Journalism. He is currently working on a book titled Scare: The Domestic War on Terror. Courtesy of Peter W. Klein hide caption

itoggle caption Courtesy of Peter W. Klein

I had a chance to fly out over the BP rig last summer, while reporting on a new neighboring deep-water well owned by Chevron. When I asked the manager of Chevron's Gulf rigs what he would do if there was a leak at his wellhead more than a mile down, he assured me they had robot-controlled devices that could handle any contingency. Chevron's workers named their rig after a Clapton band. It's called ... Blind Faith.

BP claims it will take at least two months to drill a relief well. Even with that optimistic time frame, at the current rate of flow, that means the Deepwater Horizon spill will certainly beat Ixtoc I's record — and a whole new generation of kids on beaches will discovered mysterious sticky black creatures ... lurking in the sand.

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