A ship carrying a giant metal containment box has arrived at the site where a sunken oil rig has caused an oil spill into the Gulf of Mexico. BP engineers prepared Thursday to start lowering a 98-ton metal chamber over a ruptured undersea oil well in the Gulf of Mexico, trying to control a spill that threatens an environmental catastrophe for the U.S. shoreline.
Two specially equipped “burn rigs” set fire Wednesday to patches of crude oil near the ruptured undersea well, according to a British Petroleum executive. The calm weather allowed for a series of “controlled burns” of the massive slick Wednesday, the first such attempts since a 28-minute blaze April 28 that removed thousands of gallons of fuel. In addition, thousands of volunteers, wildlife officials, idled fishermen and National Guard troops have mobilized to string floating booms along the beaches and across the mouths of estuaries leading toward the Gulf.
US authorities were on Thursday investigating reports that the oil spill had reached the Chandeleur Islands off Louisiana’s coast. Some 4,000 volunteers are being paid $10 an hour to help defend the beaches. A sheen of oil has already reached the shore in parts of Louisiana, but officials say coagulated crude oil is not expected to reach coastal areas until the end of the week. The National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration (NOAA) said the oil slick was not expected to move much in the next several days. The short-term weather forecast in the Gulf may buy much-needed time for the containment efforts. A 72-hour forecast on Wednesday showed winds shifting to the south and blowing about 10 to 15 knots (12-17 mph).
With oil continuing to gush from the deep well, they have sprayed 160,000 gallons of chemical dispersant on the water’s surface and pumped an additional 6,000 gallons directly onto the leak, a mile beneath the surface. John Curry, director of external affairs at BP, said the company was encouraged by the results so far. However some environmental groups and local fishermen are deeply nervous.
Even in the best cases, dispersants are applied in what might be termed a lose-lose strategy. Scientists make the calculation that it is better to have the ocean filled with low concentrations of the dispersant chemicals, than to have dense oil on the surface or washing up onshore, places where it is most likely to harm wildlife. Chemical dispersants are in themselves mild to moderate poisons which can affect shell fish along the ocean floors.