Race to plug leaking oil well off La. spurs new tactics
More drilling, undersea dome could be tried
NEW ORLEANS — Crews raced to protect the Gulf of Mexico coastline yesterday as a remote sub tried to shut off an underwater oil well that is gushing 42,000 gallons a day from the site of a wrecked drilling platform.
If crews cannot stop the leak quickly, they might have to drill another well to redirect the oil, a laborious process that could take about two months while oil washes up along a broad stretch of shore, from the white-sand beaches of Florida’s Panhandle to the swamps of Louisiana.
The oil, which could reach shore in as little as three days, is escaping from two leaks in a drilling pipe about 5,000 feet below the surface. The spill has grown to more than 1,800 square miles, or an area larger than Rhode Island.
Winds and currents can change rapidly and drastically, so officials were hesitant to give any longer forecasts for where the spill will head. Hundreds of miles of coastline in four states are threatened, with waters that are home to dolphins and sea birds. The areas also hold prime fishing grounds and are popular with tourists.
The oil began spewing out of the sea floor after the rig Deepwater Horizon exploded April 20 and sank two days later about 40 miles off the Mississippi River delta. Eleven of the 126 workers aboard at the time are missing and presumed dead; the rest escaped. The cause of the explosion has not been determined.
As of yesterday afternoon, an area 48 miles long and 39 miles wide was covered by oil that leaked from the site of the rig, which was owned by
Crews used robot submarines to activate valves in hopes of stopping the leaks, but they may not know until today if that strategy will work. BP also mobilized two rigs to drill a relief well if needed. Such a well could help redirect the oil, though it could also take weeks to complete, especially at that depth.
BP plans to collect leaking oil on the ocean bottom by lowering a large dome to capture the oil and then pumping it through pipes and hoses into a vessel on the surface, said Doug Suttles, chief operating officer of BP Exploration and Production.
It could take up to a month to get the equipment in place.
“That system has been deployed in shallower water, but it has never been deployed at 5,000 feet of water, so we have to be careful,’’ he said.
The spill, moving slowly north and spreading east and west, was about 30 miles from the Chandeleur Islands off the Louisiana coast yesterday. The Coast Guard said kinks in the pipe were helping stem the flow of oil.
Viewed from the air, the oil spill reached as far as the eye could see. There was little evidence of a major cleanup, with only a handful of vessels near the site of the leak.
The oil sheen was of a light-blue color, translucent and blending with the water, but a distinct edge between the oil slick and the sea could be seen stretching for miles.
George Crozier, oceanographer and executive director at the Dauphin Island Sea Lab in Alabama, said he was studying wind and ocean currents driving the oil.
He said Pensacola, Fla., is probably the eastern edge of the threatened area, though no one really knows what the effects will be. “We’ve never seen anything like this magnitude,’’ he said.
Concern yesterday focused on the Chandeleur and Breton barrier islands in Louisiana, where thousands of birds are nesting. Oil makes it difficult for birds to fly or float on the water’s surface. Plant life can also suffer serious harm.
Whales have been spotted near the oil spill, though they did not seem to be in any distress. The spill also threatened oyster beds in Breton Sound on the eastern side of the Mississippi River. Harvesters could only watch and wait.
“That’s our main oyster-producing area,’’ said John Tesvich, a fourth-generation oyster farmer with Port Sulphur Fisheries Co. His company has about 4,000 acres of oyster grounds that could be affected if the spill worsens.
If the oyster grounds are affected, thousands of fishermen, packers, and processors might have to curtail operations. Worse, he said, this is spawning season, and contamination could affect young oysters.
If the oil continues oozing north, the white-sand beaches in Mississippi, Alabama, and west Florida could be fouled, too.
In Louisiana, Governor Bobby Jindal asked the Coast Guard to use containment booms, which float like a string of fat sausage links to hold back oil until it can be skimmed off the surface.