Results of an adaptive environmental assessment modeling workshop concerning potential impacts of drilling muds and cuttings on the marine environment

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Drilling fluids or "muds" are essential components of modern drilling operations. They provide integrity for the well bore, a medium for removal of formation cuttings, and lubrication and cooling of the drill bit and pipe. The modeling workshop described in this report was conducted September 14-18, 1981 in Gulf Breeze, Florida to consider potential impacts of discharged drilling muds and cuttings on the marine environment. The broad goals of the workshop were synthesis of information on fate and effects, identification of general relationships between drilling fluids and the marine environment, and identification of site-specific variables likely to determine impacts of drilling muds and cuttings in various marine sites.

The workshop was structured around construction of a model simulating fate and effects of discharges from a single rig into open water areas of the Gulf of Mexico, and discussion of factors that might produce different fate and effects in enclosed areas such as bays and estuaries. The simulation model was composed of four connected submodels. A Discharge/Fate submodel dealt with the discharge characteristics of the rig and the subsequent fate of discharged material. Three effects submodels then calculated biological responses at distances away from the rig for the water column, soft bottom benthos (assuming the rig was located over a soft bottom environment), and hard bottom benthos (assuming the rig was located over a hard bottom environment). The model focused on direct linkages between the discharge and various organisms rather than on how the marine ecosystem itself is interconnected.

Behavior of the simulation model indicated relatively localized effects of drilling muds and cuttings discharged from a single platform into open water areas. Water column fate and effects were dominated by rapid dilution. Effects from deposition of spent mud and cuttings were spatially limited with relatively rapid recovery, especially in soft bottom benthic communities which were conceptualized as being adapted to frequent storms. This behavior was generated by the set of assumptions about linkages and functional relationships used to construct the model. Areas of uncertainty included methods for extrapolating 96-hr LC50 so results to exposures of varying lengths and concentrations; recovery rates of benthic communities; responses to various depths and rates of burial; fate and effects of the plume in relationship to stratification layers; and long-term and sub-lethal effects of slightly elevated concentrations of discharged materials. Evaluation of the assumptions of the Soft Bottom Submodel suggest that the assumptions used may have been relatively liberal estimates of resiliency of these communities.

Discussion of "closed" water bodies such as bays and estuaries indicated several reasons to expect different and more complex fate and effects behavior in these areas. These factors included different species and communities (such as aquatic macrophytes and oyster beds), more complex circulation and stratification patterns, and potentially more active resuspension processes. Much of the possible difference in behavior in these areas centers around the extent to which they are “closed” or in the relative residence times of water and sediments in these areas as they determine the long-term dispersion of discharged material. Despite the complexity and variability of these areas, a large body of knowledge (such as that concerning fate and physical effects of dredge spoil) that could be effectively employed in analysis of potential fate and physical effects in enclosed areas was identified.

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Publication type:
Publication Subtype:
Other Report
Results of an adaptive environmental assessment modeling workshop concerning potential impacts of drilling muds and cuttings on the marine environment
Series number:
NTIS PB-83-114165
Year Published:
National Technical Information Service
Publisher location:
Springfield, VA
30 p.