- environment - oil - USA
Oil slick spreads as BP steps up containment efforts
The Pentagon approved requests to fund the mobilisation of National Guard troops to help mitigate damage from a Gulf of Mexico oil slick nearing southern coasts on Tuesday as BP moved to deploy "containment domes" to trap the oil.
AFP - BP prepared Tuesday to deploy a 98-ton containment "dome" to try and stem a tide of oil gushing into the Gulf of Mexico and avert an environmental catastrophe.
The operation to place the giant structure over the largest of three oil leaks is unprecedented and, facing depths of almost a mile, remote-controlled submarines will have to guide it into place, hopefully by the weekend.
"We are aiming to put in on the ship today and start the process," BP spokesman John Curry told AFP, adding that containers for the remaining leaks were still being built.
Two weeks after the Deepwater Horizon rig exploded, the full impact of the disaster is being realized as a massive slick looms off the US Gulf coast, threatening to wipe out the livelihoods of shoreline communities.
If estimates are correct, some 2.5 million gallons of crude have streamed into the sea since the BP-leased platform spectacularly sank on April 22, still ablaze more than two days after an initial blast that killed 11 workers.
The riser pipe that had connected the rig to the wellhead now lies fractured on the seabed spewing out oil at a rate that could see the spill rival the 1989 Exxon Valdez environmental disaster in Alaska.
ExxonMobil was forced to pay out 3.4 billion dollars (2.6 billion euros) in clean-up and compensation costs for that tragedy and BP is anxious to make sure Louisiana's ecologically fragile wetlands don't suffer the same fate.
The British energy giant has been operating a fleet of robotic submarines in the murky depths to try to activate a 450-tonne valve system that should have shut off the oil automatically when the initial blowout occurred.
Another remotely-operated vehicle has been pumping dispersant directly into the leaks, but Curry said it was too early to know if this was having a significant impact on the amount of oil reaching the surface.
BP began operations on a relief well Sunday, penetrating the sea floor as it started drilling down to approximately 18,000 feet so that special fluids and then cement can be injected to seal off the supply.
But with this process expected to take up to three months and a slick the size of a small country looming off Louisiana and threatening states from Texas to Florida depending on the wind, the dome is seen as a vital short-term fix.
The idea is to place the dome over the main leak to trap the oil so it can be funneled up to the Deepwater Enterprise, a giant ship the size of three football fields that can safely process and store the crude-water mix.
"We'll have to position it in just the right position that will enable us to lower this 98-tons of steel down into the sea over the pipe that is leaking the most," said Curry.
"The main leak is much bigger so this would greatly minimize the impact to the environment which is the primary focus here."
Stormy weather through Monday grounded aerial sorties of dispersants and prevented skimming vessels from mopping up the slick, an ever-changing rectangle covering an area 130 miles (200 kilometers) long and 80 miles wide.
Curry said the army of some 3,000 responders and 200 boats hoped to take advantage of better conditions to intensify their cleanup and preparation efforts.
"I am hopeful that we'll have some really strong efforts on the surface this week to do the skimming," he said.
The stakes are high as the region boasts some 40 percent of US wetlands -- prime spawning waters for fish, shrimp and crabs and a major stop for migratory birds -- as well as a 2.4 billion dollar fishing industry.
The first dose of economic pain came on Sunday when the government announced a 10-day ban on all commercial and recreational fishing in oil-affected parts of the Gulf.
While President Barack Obama warned during a trip to the region at the weekend of a "potentially unprecedented environmental disaster," no oil has yet been confirmed on land and some reports suggest the slick could be diminishing.
"A large part of it is super thin rainbow sheen that just naturally evaporates," according to BP's Curry.
But National Wildlife Federation president Larry Schweiger told AFP it was a matter of when the larger animals would start being affected, not if.
"You can't put that much oil into the ecosystem and not have a major impact," he said.
"The oil itself has many contaminants and some get picked up in the bottom of the food chain, like in the phytoplankton, and then other organisms come along and eat them until it comes to the top of the food chain -- birds and marine animals."
The political fallout from the disaster spread Monday across the US, with California Governor Arnold Schwarzenegger backing away from a contentious proposal to drill for oil off the state's southern coast.