Cleanup crews a step closer to sealing leak

Containment dome on way to Gulf site

By Joel Achenbach and David A. Fahrenthold
Washington Post / May 6, 2010

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The battle against the giant Gulf of Mexico oil slick gained traction yesterday, even as officials raced to prepare for a sudden course shift that could push the thick gunk into the shipping channel of the Mississippi River.

Two weeks into the crisis that began with an explosion on the rig Deepwater Horizon, robotic submarines sealed one of three leaks on the sea bottom. The mile-deep plumbing fix did not diminish the amount of oil flowing from the blown-out well, but it simplified the next step in the emergency response.

That step involves what has been called a containment dome. It’s not a dome at all, but a boxy, four-story-tall, 100-ton metal structure that was used in shallow water after Hurricane Katrina. Refurbished and equipped with mud flaps, the dome was to take a 12-hour journey by barge yesterday to the open Gulf, where it was scheduled to arrive early today above the blown-out well.

If all goes as planned, a crane mounted on a second barge will lower the dome 5,000 feet to cover the largest and most worrisome leak, a break in a 21-inch pipe known as the riser. That leak is 460 feet from the wellhead and is the source of the overwhelming majority of the oil escaping the well. The dome is supposed to capture the oil and pump it through pipes to a barge at the surface.

This will take several days to get up and running, but by Monday a significant amount of the oil gushing into the Gulf may start to wind up instead in the barge, said BP chief operating officer Doug Suttles. At a news conference, Suttles and other officials tried to manage expectations, noting that such a recovery operation has never been attempted at such a great depth.

“It’s very complex, and it will likely have challenges along the way,’’ Suttles said.

The oil itself is spreading, creeping closer to the Mississippi River Delta and threatening Louisiana’s Chandeleur Sound and Breton Sound. The three-day forecast by the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration projected that the oil will move into the Mississippi’s deep-water entrance, known as the Southwest Pass, and drift west of the Delta, which would be dire for the fishing industry along that stretch of the Louisiana coast.

Better weather and calm seas made possible a controlled burn of the oil on the surface for the first time in a week.

BP is holding off on spraying chemical dispersants at the seabed where the oil is leaking, pending an analysis of possible environmental impacts. Federal officials completed a second round of testing Tuesday night on the chemical dispersant, Corexit 9500. Environmental and watchdog groups have questioned the dispersants’ potential effect on the Gulf’s most sensitive areas, because the government has not previously conducted detailed studies of the compound’s subsea ecological impact.

The news first thing yesterday morning was a morale boost for the improvised army of government and oil industry workers who have been swarming the spill. Robotic submarines, which have been sending video feeds from the bottom of the Gulf and attempting to activate the malfunctioning “blowout preventer’’ on the wellhead, turned their attention to a leak at the end of the drill pipe. First the submarines sawed off the end of the pipe, giving it a clean cut. Then they clamped on a valve and shut off the leak.

“We feel great about sealing that leak. It is absolutely a success for us, but it’s not the ultimate success that we want. Our main goal is to stop the flow completely. This is a piece that gets us a little closer to that,’’ BP spokesman Bill Salvin said.

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