April 27, 2010

Engineers Rush To Contain US Oil Spill

Just in case robotic submarines are not able to plug up an oil leak on a sunken rig in the Gulf of Mexico, engineers rushed Tuesday to build a giant containment dome to keep the spill quarantined.

British oil company BP is operating four robotic submarines almost a mile undersea to try to activate a blowout preventer that should cap the oil well. But so far, after two days of efforts, they have not been able to accomplish that goal.

The dome may be the best effort to keep the leak contained and avoid the threat of an environmental disaster from the slick that is developing off the coast of Louisiana.

"It's a dome that would be placed over the leak and instead of the oil leaking into the water column it would leak into this dome structure," said US coast guard spokesman Prentice Danner. "They started working on the fabrication of this dome structure fairly recently and its estimated it will take two to four weeks to build," he told AFP.

The spill has created a massive leak that can be seen from space and, if the winds change, could threaten the fragile wetlands of Louisiana that are home to rare water birds and other wildlife. The threat is real and could affect the area within days.

BP has sent an armada of skimmers, tugs, barges, and recovery boats to clean up the spill. More than 29,000 gallons of chemical product was dumped into the sea to disperse the oil as well. Transocean was sending a special rig to arrive late Tuesday to begin drilling two relief wells to cut off the flow of oil.

BP cautioned that the relief wells would take up to three months to drill and with oil spewing out at 42,000 gallons a day, the dome would be the best bet to contain the oil. The dome would gather the oil and allow workers to pump it out of the dome.

"If you could picture a half dome on top of the leak and the oil collects inside of this dome and is pumped out from there, that is the idea behind it," said Danner.

The dimensions of the dome are still being worked out, but officials said it would be similar to welded steel containment structures called cofferdams that are already used in oil rig construction.

BP chief Executive Tony Hayward said that the spill has triggered higher oil prices, but was confident that an environmental crisis can be averted.

Hayward said that improved weather and "light, thin oil we are dealing with, has further increased our confidence that we can tackle this spill offshore."

Experts at National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration (NOAA) said that the slick is "very thin" and consists of "97 percent sheen."

Regardless of the confidence of officials and experts that a crisis can be averted, communities along southern coastal regions in the Gulf of Mexico are bracing for the worst, which could include polluted beaches and damaged fisheries.

"The spill will start impacting the crustaceans, the oysters beds and the fish populations," warned veteran Louisiana environmentalist Wilma Subra, adding that 40 percent of the seafood consumed in the US comes from the state.

Subra urged anyone spotting oily birds or mammals to immediately notify state authorities.


Image Caption: NASA's Aqua satellite captured this image of the Gulf of Mexico on April 25, 2010 using its Moderate Resolution Imaging Spectroradiometer (MODIS) instrument. With the Mississippi Delta on the left, the silvery swirling oil slick from the April 20 explosion and subsequent sinking of the Deepwater Horizon drilling platform is highly visible. The rig was located roughly 50 miles southeast of the coast of Louisiana. The oil slick may be particularly obvious because it is occurring in the sunglint area, where the mirror-like reflection of the Sun off the water gives the Gulf of Mexico a washed-out look. Oil slicks are notoriously difficult to spot in natural-color (photo-like) satellite imagery because a thin sheen of oil only slightly darkens the already dark blue background of the ocean. Under unique viewing conditions, oil slicks can become visible in photo-like images, but usually, radar imagery is needed to clearly see a spill from space. Image Credit: NASA/MODIS Rapid Response Team


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