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Island's Recovery May Set Example For Gulf Residents

Oil burns at the Ixtoc 1 offshore drilling rig in December 1979. The rig dumped 140 million gallons of crude oil into the Gulf of Mexico and covered about 170 miles of the South Texas coast, including Galveston.
John Hoagland
Liaison/Getty Images
Oil burns at the Ixtoc 1 offshore drilling rig in December 1979. The rig dumped 140 million gallons of crude oil into the Gulf of Mexico and covered about 170 miles of the South Texas coast, including Galveston.

With the Deepwater Horizon spill well capped, one question lingers: How long will it take for the Gulf to recover?

For Galveston, Texas, this is nothing new. On June 3, 1979, an exploratory drilling rig off the coast of Mexico, owned by the Mexican government, blew out, caught fire, keeled over and plunged below into the wellhead area. The rig damaged the drill pipe as it sank, pouring oil into the sea.

That blowout was the beginning of a series of oil spills in the 1980s that speckled and contaminated the beaches of Galveston. But the community has managed to recover in a lot of ways, possibly a hopeful sign to areas now affected by the Deepwater Horizon spill.


Comparing Rig Explosions

The biggest difference between the Ixtoc I blowout in 1979 and the Deepwater Horizon spill is water depth. Instead of 5,000 feet, the Ixtoc I was in 160 feet of water, which meant divers could easily get to the well. They didn't have platoons of underwater robots back then, so having shallower waters helped. But it still took 10 months to cap the well. A nasty sheen of oil spread out across the water while massive jets of natural gas, belching from the ocean floor, fed a continuous inferno of flame burning on the surface -- its own little watery hell on Earth.

Between 3 and 5 million barrels of oil poured into the water. Wes Tunnell, the associate director of the Harte Research Institute for Gulf of Mexico Studies at Texas A&M University in Corpus Christi, says the oil covered about 170 miles of the South Texas coast.

Tunnell says the Ixtoc I spill coated the beaches of South Texas to an extent and depth not yet seen with the Deepwater Horizon spill. "It was about 20 to 30 feet in width and a half-inch to 1 foot in thickness along the entire stretch of the South Texas coast," he says.

The Mexican oil company Pemex eventually called Red Adair Co. in Houston to shut it down. They did manage to close the well casing and put out the fire, but only briefly.


Then the well ruptured again. And the massive natural gas plume had to be relit because of the potential danger to ships at the surface. In 1979 this all happened in relative obscurity -- but you can imagine the Monday-morning quarterbacking if it were to have happened in 2010.

A Local Perspective

For more than 100 years, the city of Galveston has lived by the Gulf and died by the Gulf. Tourism, shipping and the oil industry are its lifeblood; hurricanes and oil spills are the banes of its existence.

Natalie Gober is "BOI," born on the island. Standing in front of Hendley Market on the Galveston Strand, Gober remembers past decades. "The sea wall is like a long sidewalk park that runs most of the length of the island, and in the '70s I remember it -- and in the '80s -- I remember it just being polka-dotted black, like a Dalmatian, just up and down," Gober says.

Locals in Galveston are famous for not going to the beach -- it's one of the many ways they differentiate themselves from the tourists. But back in 1979, Gober, then a young girl, was still very much going to the water regularly.

"Yeah, just as a little kid that was one of the hazards on the sand was sitting in or stepping in tar. Kind of hard to get off," she says.

Cheryl Jenkins, manager of the Hendley Market, remembers the tar but doesn't recall that it was devastating to the island's tourist industry. "It was just a fact of life -- I mean, there was just going to be tar. And you just had ways to clean it off your feet, you had baby oil and paper towels. And you just figured out ways to cope with it," Jenkins says.

More Spills, More Storms

The problem for many locals trying to remember back 30 years ago is that the disasters kind of run together. The Ixtoc I blowout was just the beginning of a series of environmental and natural catastrophes that hit the island over the next 10 years. Just five months after the well exploded, the Burmah Agate oil tanker collided with the freighter Mimosa at the entrance to Galveston Bay. The accident caused a massive explosion and fire, and 10 million gallons of oil spilled and burned for two months.

The water was filled with burned petroleum product waste as well as millions of gallons of oil that didn't burn. Then, in 1984, the British oil tanker Alvenus ran aground, cracking open the ship's main deck and spilling a massive volume of Venezuelan crude into the Gulf. Jan Coggeshall, the mayor of Galveston back then, says the ship was carrying 53,000 metric tons of oil.

"From that date for the next year the island was cleaning up heavy crude. We just had to stop beach activity, and we had to start water-blasting the seawall, which is 10 miles long, to clean that up. So that was a huge project. It was a very difficult time," Coggeshall says.

The island experienced three oil spills in five years, plus a Category 3 hurricane in 1983 named Alicia, which tore up downtown Galveston. It was a lot to recover from, not unlike on the Gulf Coast today with Hurricane Katrina and the current oil spill.

Pain Eases As Memories Fade

Nevertheless, Galveston rebuilt its hotels and restaurants and repeatedly cleaned its beaches and seawall of the oil. By the mid-late 1980s, the tourists were back in force. The local oyster, shrimp and fishing industries slowly recovered too. Although some oil from the Deepwater Horizon spill has made its way west to Galveston, it's been a very small amount.

When you ask locals like Jack King if he remembers the aftermath of the Galveston oil spills of the '70s and '80s, he squints his eyes. He owns LaKing's Confectionery, which for more than 30 years has made its own candy.

"Because this place has been here so long and people now who came here as children are bringing their children back, we get a lot of phone calls [asking], 'Are you open again? Is Galveston back?' I haven't yet had anyone to ask me, 'Is there oil on the beaches?' So we're happy," King says.

Galveston has post-traumatic stress disorder. It's been so dazed by hurricanes that the oil spills seem nothing more than a nuisance -- at least in retrospect.

King and his island are recovering from yet another devastating hurricane: Hurricane Ike, which plowed into Galveston at 2 a.m. in 2008 with a Category 5 storm surge. Most of the island went completely underwater, and destruction was widespread.

Galveston is once again crawling from wreckage. The people of Louisiana, Mississippi, Alabama and Florida certainly hope that in 30 years they'll squint trying to remember their oil spill too.

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