Jacqui Goddard in Miami
Engineers are crafting a giant underwater dome to help to contain an oil spill in the Gulf of Mexico after attempts to shut off the leak using robotic submarines failed.
BP, which leased the Deepwater Horizon rig that exploded 50 miles (80km) from the Louisiana coast last Tuesday, killing 11 workers, said yesterday that it was pursuing new tactics after failing to prevent its spread by closing a valve in the pipe.
While the robots continued their efforts one mile down and a new rig arrived to drill into the leaking well and plug it in an operation that could take months, BP said that its dome should trap the escaping oil and funnel it to tanks on the surface.
Such devices were tried when Hurricane Katrina swept through the Gulf in 2005 but have never been used in water this deep. Tony Odone, a spokesman for BP, said: “They have been used in shallow water before. They contain the oil in that dome and then suck it up. “The ROVs [remotely operated vehicles] will continue trying but we are trying to get these other things activated as quickly as possible, too.”
The race was on to contain the spill — which is 48 miles at its widest, 39 miles at its longest and has a circumference of 600 miles — before it reaches the coast of Louisiana. Last night it was 30 miles from shore. A total of 1,000 people are involved in the disaster response, from BP workers and the US Coast Guard to the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration and oil industry experts.
“We have the world’s experts working with us right now,” said Doug Suttles, BP’s chief operating officer for exploration and production.
There are concerns of a major environmental disaster and potential devastation for the seafood industry should the oil spread faster than it can be cleaned up. Louisiana is one month away from opening its inshore shrimping season, its crab season is just starting and oyster beds could be closed if the oil gets into coastal estuaries. Bird nesting areas on the fragile barrier islands would also be at risk.
“The big question is where is this oil going to go?” said Ed Overton, an environmental science expert at Louisiana State University. Sunlight and bacteria should help to break down some of it, he said but the coast — which is home to 40 per cent of America’s wetlands but loses up to 35 square miles of it a year due to erosion — could become a “God-awful mess for a while”.
“It’s a fragile area already. The good news is that the whole environment down here has had oil exploration for 50, 60 years so the bacterial colonies are already acclimated. Whether it’s a big glob or a small glob, if it gets onshore it covers the grass which will die away and that causes land erosion,” Mr Overton said.