BP scrambles to cap flow as oil closes in on marsh

BP scrambled to plug the leak as the government approved the use of dispersants underwater.

Last Updated: May 15, 2010, 16:53 PM IST

Port Fourchon, La: Energy giant BP scrambled on Saturday to make good on its latest attempt to contain oil from a ruptured wellhead in the Gulf of Mexico as the government approved the use of dispersants underwater, at the source of the seabed gusher.

With crude oil pouring unchecked from a blown-out well a mile (1.6 km) deep on the floor of the Gulf, London-based BP was struggling to guide robots to insert a narrow tube wrapped in a rubber flange into the 21-inch pipe spewing the oil -- and to funnel that oil to a drill ship at the surface.

"That work is currently underway and we hope to begin operations overnight," BP Chief Operating Officer Doug Suttles told reporters on Friday afternoon.

Seeking new tactics to curb the volume of oil reaching the surface, the US Coast Guard and US Environmental Protection Agency early on Saturday said they had authorized the subsea use of chemical dispersants at the source of the leak.

Dispersants are designed to break the oil into small droplets more likely to sink to the sea floor.

Some environmental groups and the Gulf`s shrimping industry have raised concerns about effect of the chemicals, saying the oil might not sink all the way, but become suspended in the water column and ingested by fish and other wildlife.

Time running out

But a statement by the EPA and Coast Guard sought to allay those fears, saying dispersants are "generally less harmful than highly toxic oil" and biodegrade more quickly.

"Preliminary testing results indicate that subsea use of the dispersant is effective at reducing the amount of oil from reaching the surface -- and can do so with the use of less dispersant than is needed when the oil does reach the surface," the statement said.

Coast Guard Admiral Thad Allen, the US government`s commander for operations in the Gulf, said cleanup crews would continue to attack the oil slick using surface dispersants, skimming and controlled burns.

Further inland, BP contractors assisted by flotillas of hired shrimp boats continued to string containment booms around sensitive coastal areas. And National Guard teams with bulldozers and helicopters pressed on to plug gaps in booms protecting Louisiana`s storm-battered shoreline to prevent oil from reaching the fragile marshlands behind them.

Time may be running out on the marshes. Local TV footage late on Friday from a helicopter flight over Louisiana`s barrier islands showed miles of oil slick carried by churning waves being washed through wide passes between the islands directly toward the wetlands of Terrebonne Parish.

Scientists and shrimpers alike have said repeatedly that contamination of the marshes, the foundation for the region`s economy and way of life, would be devastating.

The vast but dwindling marshes are the nurseries for shrimp, oysters, crabs and fish that make Louisiana the leading producer of commercial seafood in the continental United States and a top destination for recreational anglers.

"I want to throw up right now," said Michael Gros, 51, a shrimp boat owner and captain from Larose, a town in the La Fourche Parish of Louisiana.

"I`ve been doing this for 22 years full time, and I don`t really know nothing else," he said in a soft Cajun drawl. "If it doesn`t come into our marsh and ruin our marsh, I`ll be very surprised. Once the grass dies, it`s gone."

The energy giant`s prior attempt to contain the oil -- a giant containment dome -- failed last week after an accumulation of frozen hydrocarbons rendered it useless.

US President Barack Obama on Friday gave a tongue-lashing to all the companies involved in the spill -- BP, Halliburton and Transocean Ltd. -- and said he would not rest until the leak was stopped at its source.

The spill began after an April 20 explosion on the Deepwater Horizon rig, which killed 11 workers. It threatens to eclipse the 1989 Exxon Valdez spill off Alaska to become the worst ecological disaster in US history.

Estimates of the rate of escaping oil range widely from the official BP figure of 5,000 barrels per day (210,000 gallons/795,000 liters), adopted by the government, to 100,000 barrels (4.2 million gallons/15.9 million liters) per day.
BP`s chief operating officer Doug Suttles said calm weather would help the company deal with the incident over the weekend and into next week.

"We have our best success when the weather is good, and the forecast for the weekend and the early part of next week looks very favorable to use all of our tools available to us."
"Thankfully to date there`s been very limited impact to shoreline." Beachgoers in the resort town of Grand Isle, a major recreational fishing hub, were naturally uneasy.

Scott Gaudin, 45, a former petrochemical worker and lifelong visitor to Grand Isle who made the three-hour drive down from his home in Gretna with his wife and two dogs, spent time on Friday collecting scattered bits of what appeared to be hardened, black tar off the beach.

Gaudin said he was convinced the greenish-tan foam washing up along the water`s edge was tainted with oil and he could see a slight sheen on the surface of the water as the surf ebbed.

"I`ll bet if you tested this, they`d find oil in it," he said, rubbing some of the foam in his fingers.

Bureau Report