Oil Spill Now Covering More Than 1,800 Square Miles
By CAMPBELL ROBERTSON and LESLIE KAUFMAN
NEW ORLEANS — Coast Guard officials said Monday afternoon that the oil spill near Louisiana is now covering more than 1,800 square miles of the Gulf of Mexico, and they have been unable to engage a mechanism that could shut off the well thousands of feet below the water’s surface.
Oil Spill Spreads in Gulf of Mexico
The response team is trying three tacks to address a spill that was instigated by an explosion on an oil rig last week: one that could stop the leaks within hours, one that would take months and one that would not stop the leaks but would capture the oil and deliver it to the surface while permanent measures are pursued.
On Sunday morning, officials began using remote-controlled vehicles to try to activate the blowout preventer, a 450-ton valve sitting at the wellhead, 5,000 feet below the ocean’s surface. The blowout preventer can seal off the well, and is designed to do just that to prevent sudden pressure releases that possibly led to the first explosion on the oil rig on Tuesday night.
If successful, engaging the blowout preventer could seal the well Monday or Tuesday.
The flow of oil from the leaks is about 42,000 gallons of oil a day.
The Coast Guard also said in a statement Monday that an aircrew from the United States Fish and Wildlife Service spotted five small whales during an over-flight in the vicinity of the oil spill on Sunday.
“The unified command is monitoring the situation and is working closely with officials from Fish and Wildlife, National Marine Fisheries Service and NOAA to understand the impact the spill and response activities may have on whales and other marine wildlife in the area,” the statement said.
Officials determined through weather patterns that the sheen of oil and water would remain at least 30 miles from shore at least until Tuesday. But states along the Gulf Coast have been warned to be on alert.
The Coast Guard and other officials involved with the cleanup have scheduled a news conference for Monday afternoon.
“We have been in contact with all the coastal states,” Rear Adm. Mary E. Landry, the commander of the Eighth Coast Guard District, said at a news conference on Sunday. Emphasizing that the sheen was not estimated to hit shore anytime soon, Admiral Landry said contingency plans were being put in place.
“Everyone is forward-leaning and preparing for coastal impact,” she said.
Louisiana is erecting containment booms around sensitive coastal areas as a precautionary measure.
At the rate of 42,000 gallons of oil a day, the leak would have to continue for 262 days to match the 11-million-gallon spill from the Exxon Valdez in 1989, the worst oil spill in United States history.
The leaks were discovered Saturday in the riser, the 5,000-foot-long pipe that extended from the wellhead to the drilling platform. The riser detached from the platform after it exploded and sank, and it is now snaking up from the wellhead and back down to the sea floor. It is leaking in two places, both at the sea floor. The bends in the riser, like kinks in a garden hose, have apparently prevented a gush of oil. When the platform was on the ocean’s surface and the riser was still attached last week, oil and gas were shooting up through the riser, creating plumes of flame.
Another effort described by officials Sunday — drilling relief wells nearby — would take two to three months to stop the flow.
BP is mobilizing two rigs that could drill the relief wells, which could send heavy mud and concrete into the cavity of oil and gas that drilling apparently punctured by accident.
If the blowout preventer does not seal off the well, officials intend to place a large dome directly over the leaks to catch the oil and route it up to the surface, where it could be collected.
This has been done before, but only in shallow waters, Mr. Suttles said.
“It’s never been deployed in 5,000 feet of water,” he said. “But we have the world’s best experts working on that right now.”
Rough seas halted the cleanup efforts on Saturday and most of Sunday. But as the weather cleared Sunday afternoon, aircraft resumed dumping dispersant, or chemicals that break down the oil. By evening, 15 vessels were headed to the area to resume skimming the oil off the surface of the ocean.
The Coast Guard said 48,000 gallons of oil-water mix had been collected by Sunday.
Doug Helton, a fisheries biologist who coordinates oil spill responses for the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration, said the oil emanating from the riser was taking the shape of a giant ice cream cone as it drifted toward the surface. He said there were no reports of dead animals yet, although that was expected to change if the leaks were not sealed.
Mr. Helton added that wind data allowed officials to predict that the spill would not hit shore within three days, but that it was moving north.
“Louisiana is the closest area,” he said. “There is a potential for other Gulf states if the release continues unabated, but we have no indication in our trajectories that shorefall will happen in the next three days.”
Sea life that congregates at the surface and has no mobility of its own — like plankton and fish eggs — is the most vulnerable to the slick. A large-scale destruction of eggs could affect fish populations in the future.
Officials are monitoring the environmental effects of the spill by boat and planes.
“It will be more severe over time,” Mr. Helton said.