A 100-ton concrete-and-steel contraption designed to siphon off the oil fouling the Gulf of Mexico was being hauled to the spot in the sea where a blown-out well is spewing hundreds of thousands of gallons of petroleum a
Engineers hope it will be the best short-term solution to controlling the leak that has only worsened since it began two weeks ago.
A boat hauling the specially built containment box and dome structure pushed off Wednesday evening from the Louisiana coast and was expected to arrive at the site of the disaster sometime Thursday.
The concrete-and-steel box, which stands at 40ft high, is seen as the best short-term solution to bottling up the disastrous oil spill that threatens sealife and livelihoods along the Gulf Coast.
So far BP has managed to cap the smallest of three leaks at the deepwater well, but engineers hope the funnel will finally stem the disastrous oil leak a mile beneath the Gulf of Mexico.
“We’re a little anxious. They’re gonna try everything they can. If it don’t work, they’ll try something else,” Capt. Demi Shaffer told The Associated Press aboard his boat just after it set off. The AP is the only news organization with access to the containment effort.
A 12-man crew aboard a supply boat was carrying the precious cargo. Joe Griffin, owned by Edison Chouest Offshore, also was involved in helping fight the fire that resulted from the oil rig explosion. The vessel is named for a boat captain who worked with company founder Edison Chouest, when Chouest was still in the shrimping business.
The operator of the oil rig, BP PLC, has tried several high-tech undersea tactics to cap the leak. The containment dome endeavor is unprecedented and engineers are fully aware of the risks.
Coast Guard Rear Adm. Mary Landry tried to moderate expectations that the containment box would be a silver bullet.
“I know we are all hoping that this containment system will work, but I want to remind everybody that this containment system is a first of its kind deployed in 5,000 feet of water,” Landry said.
Jason Holvey, a marine engineer, said smaller containment devices have been used in the Gulf, but at depths of only about 300 feet (91 metres).
They were used after Hurricane Katrina, he said, to capture oil spilled from platforms.
One fear is that the petroleum will clog up in the tubes and make it difficult to pump the oil into the tanker.
‘We don’t know for sure’ whether the equipment will work, Salvin said.
‘What we do know is that we have done extensive engineering and modeling and we believe this gives us the best chance to contain the oil, and that’s very important to us.’
Men in hard hats are putting the finishing touches on the contraption.
But a much less visible task is unfolding at the bottom of the Gulf, 5,000 feet (1,524 meters) down.
It is there that nine submersible robots are carrying out various tasks.
The vehicles are also trying to activate a giant piece of machinery called a blowout preventer that was supposed to stop the oil flow but failed.
The undersea vehicles are the workhorses of the deepwater oil and gas industry, capable of performing chores at depths where people can’t go because of the crushing water pressure. They are the size of a Humvee and are generally operated by a three-person crew using joysticks and video feeds on 40-inch screens.
Asked to handicap the odds of success, Bob Fryer, a senior executive vice president for BP’s Deep Water Angola, offered up this assessment: “This has never been done before. Typically you would put odds on something that has been done before.”
Fryer also said BP is exploring a technique in which crews would reconfigure the well that would allow them to plug the leak, but that effort is a couple weeks off.
The containment effort comes as dozens of boats were deployed across the Gulf to fight back the slick at the surface, including setting fires to burn off oil and laying booms to soak up the crude and block it from reaching the coast.
While people anxiously wait for the mess to wash up along the coast, globules of oil are already falling to the bottom of the sea, where they threaten virtually every link in the ocean food chain, from plankton to fish that are on dinner tables everywhere.
Hail-size gobs of oil with the consistency of tar or asphalt will roll around the bottom, while other bits will get trapped hundreds of feet below the surface and move with the current, said Robert S. Carney, a Louisiana State University oceanographer.
“The threat to the deep-sea habitat is already a done deal – it is happening now,” said Paul Montagna, a marine scientist at the Harte Research Institute for Gulf of Mexico Studies at Texas A&M University-Corpus Christi.
Scientists say bacteria, plankton and other tiny, bottom-feeding creatures will consume oil, and will then be eaten by small fish, crabs and shrimp. They, in turn, will be eaten by bigger fish, such as red snapper, and marine mammals like dolphins.
The petroleum substances that concentrate in the sea creatures could kill them or render them unsafe for eating, scientists say.
“If the oil settles on the bottom, it will kill the smaller organisms like the copepods and small worms,” Montagna said. “When we lose the forage, then you have an impact on the larger fish.”
Making matters worse for the deep sea is the leaking well’s location: It is near the continental shelf of the Gulf where a string of coral reefs flourishes. Coral is a living creature that excretes a hard calcium carbonate exoskeleton, and oil globs can kill it.
Scientists are watching carefully to see whether the slick will hitch a ride to the East Coast by way of a powerful eddy known as the “loop current,” which could send the spill around Florida and into the Atlantic Ocean. If that happens, the oil could foul beaches and kill marine life on the East Coast.
The cause of the rig explosion is still not known, but investigators from multiple federal agencies are looking into the matter. The rig owner, Transocean Ltd., said in a filing with regulators Wednesday that it has received a request from the Justice Department to preserve information about the blast.
Under laws enacted following the 1989 Exxon Valdez spill, the ‘responsible party’ is required to pay for the clean-up.
Compensation will also have to be paid to those whose livelihoods have been destroyed.
Thousands of fishermen have been prevented from working as efforts are made to clean up the spill. Tourism could also be affected.
President Barack Obama insisted at the weekend: ‘BP is responsible for this leak. BP will be paying the bill’.