BP began lowering a 100-ton concrete-and-steel vault onto a ruptured well in the Gulf of Mexico on Friday, an important step in a delicate and unprecedented attempt to stop most of the gushing crude fouling the sea.
Underwater robots guided the 40-foot-tall box into place. Once the contraption is on the seafloor, workers will need at least 12 hours to let it settle and make sure it’s stable before the robots can hook up a pipe and hose that will funnel the oil up to a tanker.
If the box settles properly, crews will then turn their attention to hooking up a pipe to pump the oil out. Similar operations have been successful in much shallower water, but it’s never been tried in ocean conditions, a mile below the surface.
One problem is the temperature at the ocean’s floor, just 10 degrees Fahrenheit above freezing. That could cause the gooey mixture of oil and gas to freeze on the way up the pipe. Officials say they’ve taken that into account and are pumping warmer water down to try to prevent that from happening.
“We haven’t done this before,” said BP spokesman David Nicholas. “It’s very complex and we can’t guarantee it.”
Oil giant BP is in charge of cleaning up the mess in the Gulf. It was leasing the drilling rig Deepwater Horizon when it exploded 50 miles offshore April 20, killing 11 workers and blowing open the well. An estimated 200,000 gallons a day have been spewing in the nation’s biggest oil spill since the Exxon Valdez disaster in Alaska in 1989.
As part of its campaign to win over locals, BP announced $25 million grants to each of the four affected states – Louisiana, Mississippi, Alabama and Florida. The money is for states to spend however they wish to prepare for the possibility oil will wash up on their beaches.
But BP has acknowledged a few missteps along the way. Early on in the spill, the company offered coastal residents cash payment in exchange for giving up their right to sue the company later. BP’s leadership put a stop to that.
BP spokeswoman said that ultimately it’s what the company does that will win back public trust.
“You’re not going to win over hearts and minds by words,” she said. “You’re going to win over hearts and minds by actions. And that’s why we’re here in the community. There are BP people deployed across the coastline, in the communities, trying to say, ‘We’re here. … How can we help?'”
The containment box will not solve the problem altogether. Crews are still drilling a relief well and working on other methods to stop the leaks.
The quest to stop the oil took on added urgency as it reached several barrier islands off the Louisiana coast, many of them fragile animal habitats. Several birds were spotted diving into the oily, pinkish-brown water, and dead jellyfish washed up on the uninhabited islands.
“It’s all over the place. We hope to get it cleaned up before it moves up the west side of the river,” said Dustin Chauvin, a 20-year-old shrimp boat captain from Terrebonne Parish, La. “That’s our whole fishing ground. That’s our livelihood.”
If the box works, a second one now being built may be used to deal with a second, smaller leak from the sea floor.
Meanwhile, a huge oil slick is floating in the Gulf, and residents of Louisiana, Mississippi, Alabama and Florida are anxiously waiting to learn when it might come ashore.
Oil from the spill is extending west around the Mississippi Delta, according to a radar image taken Wednesday night by a Canadian satellite. That extension looks like a finger reaching out from the main patch, imaging expert Hans Graber of the University of Miami said Friday.
The main oil slick has been shifting to the northwest, encroaching on Chandeleur Sound, which lies between the delicate Chandeleur Islands and Mississippi Delta wetlands, he said.
A federal judicial panel in Washington has been asked to consolidate at least 65 potential class action lawsuits claiming economic damage from the spill. Commercial fishermen, business and resort owners, charter boat captains, even would-be vacationers have sued from Texas to Florida, seeking damages that could reach into the billions.
“It’s just going to kill us. It’s going to destroy us,” said Dodie Vegas, who owns a motel and cabins in Grand Isle, La., and has seen 10 guests cancel.