May 9, 2010

Oil Spill Dome Finds Trouble Underwater

The dome that was meant to help contain the oil spill in the gulf ran into trouble on Saturday after it encountered flammable hydrate formations as it was lowered onto the leak area.

The gas hydrates, similar to ice crystals, formed on the inside of the 100-ton chamber as it started to get closer to the seabed, nearly a mile below the surface.  BP chief operating officer Doug Suttles told reporters that this made it too buoyant and clogged it up.

Workers have removed the concrete and steel box about 200 feet to the side of the seabed while they evaluate their options.

About 210,000 gallons of oil a day keep spilling out from a pipe ruptured when the BP-leased Deepwater Horizon sank on April 22, two days after an explosion that left 11 workers dead.

The dome had been considered the best short-term solution to stave off the biggest U.S. environmental disaster since the 1989 Exxon Valdez spill in Alaska.

"I wouldn't say it's failed yet," Suttles said. "What I would say is what we attempted to do last night didn't work."

Suttles said BP was also considering other methods to capture the flow.

Another option being considered was to plug the leak by injecting ground-up material in a "junk shot."

"It has certain issues and challenges and risks with it, and that's why we haven't actually progressed up to this point. But we look and continue to see whether that's a viable option," Suttles told AFP.

"It's all to do with we're working in 5,000 feet of water in a very difficult, challenging environment."

Workers also sprayed dispersants over the slick in order to break up and deploy hundreds of thousands of feet of boom to contain the spreading oil.

However, environmentalists warn that dispersants like Corexit were also a danger to sea life.

"Those products don't make the oil go away," Gulf Coast Research Laboratory marine biologist Joe Griffitt told AFP. "It just falls to the sea bottom. That's where you'll find the sediments and the larvae. So the toxic effect is double."

According to Suttles, BP anticipated encountering hydrates, but had not expected them to be as significant of a problem as it has turned out.  Teams were evaluating whether the issue could be overcome by providing heat, methanol or other methods.

The dome, which could collect about 85 percent of the leaking crude by funneling it up to the surface, was expected to be operational by Monday.


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