Testing and Assessment of the Effects of an Oil Spill on Coastal Archaeological Sites
Sunset over the Gulf of Mexico. ©Photograph by Samuel M. Huey.
On April 20th, 2010 the explosion of the Deepwater Horizon drilling rig off of the Mississippi River delta led to the largest offshore oil spill in history. The northern Gulf of Mexico was inundated with millions of barrels of crude oil from the Macondo Prospect and Mississippi Canyon 252 (MC252).* In the weeks and months following the catastrophe, the response focused on containing and stopping the spill.
Archaeologists meanwhile considered the potential effects on endangered archaeological sites in already-damaged coastal ecosystems. Among the many unanswered questions were:
As part of the oil spill response, archaeologists across the northern Gulf Coast were involved in Shoreline Cleanup Assessment Techniques (SCAT) and the monitoring of cleanup activities. Archaeologists and SCAT teams conducted site monitoring and surveys in order to address the immediate effects on cultural resources.
- Will oil from the spill infiltrate subsurface archaeological deposits?
- How will contamination from hydrocarbons affect radiocarbon dating and pretreatment of samples?
- What about the effects of oil on ceramics, bone, and other materials?
- Will hydrocarbons affect analytical techniques such as neutron activation analysis (NAA) or absorbed residue analysis?
A cooperative agreement was subsequently established between the Bureau of Ocean Energy Management (BOEM) and the University of Louisiana at Lafayette, as part of the Gulf Coast Cooperative Ecosystem Studies Unit.**
The primary goals of this project are to:
(1) assess the effects of the Mississippi Canyon 252 (MC252) Deepwater Horizon oil spill of 2010 on prehistoric archaeological sites on the Louisiana Gulf Coast, and
(2) provide the Louisiana State Historic Preservation Office, Division of Archaeology, with information relevant to CRM planning, in compliance with Federal and State legislation and accompanying regulations.
In order to accomplish these goals, the objectives of the project are to assess the immediate and long-term impacts on cultural resources by conducting test excavations at a minimum of eight and maximum of 12 prehistoric coastal sites in southern Louisiana. At least six of these sites will previously have been observed to be impacted by the MC252 Deepwater Horizon oil spill of 2010. Two sites will serve as controls in the investigation, having not previously been observed to be impacted by the MC252 oil spill. The objectives of the project include investigations of the potential effects of hydrocarbons and contaminants in the archaeological record, as well as evaluation of the effects of an oil spill on future research costs, site formation processes, and long-term site preservation.
*3.19 million barrels according to a ruling by U.S. District Judge Carl Barbier in January of 2015 (New York Times, January 15, 2015).**This research is made possible by a cooperative agreement between the Bureau of Ocean Energy Management, Environmental Studies Program, and the University of Louisiana at Lafayette, as part of the Gulf Coast Cooperative Ecosystem Studies Unit (Award Number M14AC00022).
For more information, contact: Dr. Mark A. Rees, Louisiana Public Archaeology Lab, 108 Mouton Hall, University of Louisiana at Lafayette, Lafayette, LA 70504.