New scale of disaster looms in Gulf of Mexico
by Guillaume Decamme Guillaume Decamme Sun May 9, 4:16 pm ET
NEW ORLEANS, Louisiana (AFP) – Concern grew Sunday that the US Gulf coast is facing a whole new level of environmental disaster after the best short-term fix for a massive oil spill ran into serious trouble.
BP's giant containment box lay idle on the seabed as engineers furiously tried to figure out how to stop it clogging with ice crystals.
The British energy giant, which owns the lion's share of the leaking oil and has accepted responsibility for the clean-up, has tried to banish the notion that the dome is a "silver bullet" to end the crisis.
But should efforts fail to make the giant funnel system effective, there is no solid plan B to prevent potentially tens of millions of gallons of crude from causing one of the worst ever environmental catastrophes.
Untold damage is already being done by the 3.5 million gallons estimated to be in the sea so far, but the extent of that harm will rise exponentially if the only solution is a relief well that takes months to drill.
Admiral Thad Allen, head of the US Coast Guard, suggested they were considering what he called a "junk shot" to plug the main leak.
"They're actually going to take a bunch of debris, shredded up tires, golf balls and things like that and under very high pressure shoot it into the preventer itself and see if they can clog it up and stop the leak," Allen, who is leading the US government's response, told CBS's "Face the Nation."
This could be risky as experts have warned that excessive tinkering with the blowout preventer -- a huge 450-ton valve system that should have shut off the oil -- could see crude shoot out unchecked at 12 times the current rate.
There are also fears the slick, which covers an area of about 2,000 square miles (5,200 square kilometers), could be carried around the Florida peninsula if it spreads far enough south to be picked up by a special current.
"If this gusher continues for several months, it's going to cover up the Gulf coast and it's going to get down into the loop current and that's going to take it down the Florida Keys and up the east coast of Florida," warned Florida senator Bill Nelson.
"You are talking about massive economic loss to our tourism, our beaches, to our fisheries, very possibly disruption of our military testing and training, which is in the Gulf of Mexico," he told CNN's "State of the Union" program.
The BP-leased Deepwater Horizon rig sank some 50 miles southeast of Venice, Louisiana on April 22, two days after an explosion that killed 11 workers.
The riser pipe that had connected the rig to the wellhead now lies fractured on the seabed a mile below spewing out oil at a rate at some 5,000 barrels, or 210,000 gallons, a day.
Sheen from the leading edge of the slick has surrounded island nature reserves off the coast of Louisiana and tar balls have reached as far as the Alabama coast, threatening tourist beaches further east.
Sealife is being affected in a region that contains vital spawning grounds for fish, shrimp and crabs and is a major migratory stop for many species of rare birds.
The 2.4 billion dollar Louisiana fishing industry has been slapped with a temporary ban in certain areas due to health concerns from theoretically polluted fish.
BP, facing a barrage of lawsuits and clean-up costs soaring above 10 million dollars a day, had pinned its hopes on a 98-ton concrete and steel containment box that it lowered successfully 5,000 feet (1,500 meters) over the main leak.
"I wouldn't say it's failed yet," chief operating officer Doug Suttles said on Saturday. "What we attempted to do last night didn't work because these hydrates plugged up the top of the dome."
Clearing out the slushy crystals is easy -- the chamber just has to be raised to warmer levels, Suttles told reporters. Keeping the crystals out so that a pipe can be lowered into the dome to suck the oil to a waiting barge is another matter.
BP began drilling a first relief well one week ago, but that will take up to three months to drill -- by which time some 20 million gallons of crude could have streamed into the sea and ruined the fragile ecology of the Gulf.
Rough seas last week hampered efforts to skim the oil from the sea with boats and controlled burns.