May 7, 2010 9:55 AM by Sharlee Jacobs
ON THE GULF OF MEXICO- A mission to the bottom of the sea
to try to avert a wider environmental disaster progressed early
Friday as crews said a 100-ton concrete-and-steel box was close to
being placed over a blown-out well on the Gulf floor in an
unprecedented attempt to capture gushing oil.
Douglas Peake, the first mate of the supply boat that brought
the box to the site, confirmed he received a radio transmission
from the nearby vessel lowering the device that said the device
would be in position over the well soon.
The transmission said undersea robots were placing buoys around
the main oil leak to act as markers to help line up the 40-foot
The box was about 4,000 feet underwater before dawn Friday, with
another 1,000 feet to go, Coast Guard Petty Officer Shawn Eggert
Meanwhile, a separate mission was close to getting under way to
spray water around the rig that's drilling a relief well to try to
reduce the level of fumes from the thick oil hampering the crew's
ability to do its work on deck.
A crane late Thursday lowered the containment vessel designed to
collect as much as 85 percent of the oil spewing into the Gulf and
funnel it up to a tanker. Eventually the crane would give way to
underwater robots that will secure the contraption over the main
leak at the bottom, a journey that would take hours.
A steel pipe will be installed between the top of the box and
tanker. If all goes well, the whole structure could be operating by
"We haven't done this before," said BP spokesman David
Nicholas. "It's very complex and we can't guarantee it."
Oil giant BP PLC is in charge of cleaning up the mess. It was
leasing the drilling rig Deepwater Horizon that exploded 50 miles
out in the Gulf of Mexico, killing 11 workers on April 20 and
blowing open the well. It has been spewing an estimated 200,000
gallons a day in the nation's biggest oil spill since the Exxon
Valdez disaster in Alaska in 1989.
The quest took on added urgency as oil 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
"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."
The crew of the semi-submersible drilling vessel Helix Q4000
waited hours longer that expected to hoist the contraption from the
deck of the Joe Griffin supply boat because dangerous fumes rising
from the oily water on a windless night had delayed the work. Joe
Griffin Capt. Demi Shaffer told an Associated Press reporter aboard
his boat the fear was that a spark caused by the scrape of metal on
metal could cause a fire.
But the crane lifted the containment box from the deck and into
the Gulf after 10 p.m. CDT, dark oil clinging to its white sides as
it entered the water and disappeared below the surface.
The technology has been used a few times in shallow waters, but
never at such extreme depths - 5,000 feet down, where the water
pressure is enough to crush a submarine.
The box - which looks a lot like a peaked, 40-foot-high
outhouse, especially on the inside, with its rough timber framing -
must be accurately positioned over the well, or it could damage the
leaking pipe and make the problem worse.
BP spokesman Doug Suttles said he is not concerned about that
happening. Underwater robots have been clearing pieces of pipe and
other debris near where the box will be placed to avoid
"We do not believe it could make things worse," he said.
Other risks include ice clogs in the pipes - a problem that
crews will try to prevent by continuously pumping in warm water and
methanol - and the danger of explosion when separating the mix of
oil, gas and water that is brought to the surface.
"I'm worried about every part, as you can imagine," said David
Clarkson, BP vice president of engineering projects.
If the box works, a second one now being built may be used to
deal with a second, smaller leak from the sea floor.
"Hopefully, it will work better than they expect," Peake,
Interior Secretary Ken Salazar on Thursday halted all new
offshore drilling permits nationwide until at least the end of the
month while the government investigates the Gulf spill.
Oil slicks stretched for miles off the Louisiana coast, where
desperate efforts were under way to skim, corral and set the
petroleum ablaze. People in Mississippi, Alabama and Florida
watched in despair.
The dropping of the box is just one of many strategies being
pursued to stave off a widespread environmental disaster. BP is
drilling sideways into the blown-out well in hopes of plugging it
from the bottom. Also, oil company engineers are examining whether
the leak could be shut off by sealing it from the top instead.
The technique, called a "top kill," would use a tube to shoot
mud and concrete directly into the well's blowout preventer, BP
spokesman Bill Salvin said. The process would take two to three
weeks, compared with the two to three months needed to drill a
Just after sunrise Friday, the crew of the Joe Griffin planned
to spray clean water from cannons into the oil-filled waters
surrounding the rig drilling the relief well. The goal is to divert
some of the oil away from the rig because the fumes have been so
intense that the crew of the rig has had difficulty working on its
deck, which is critical to the effort to drill the well.
"Right now, we are the only boat in the zone equipped to do
it," Shaffer said of the water cannons.
The rig drilling the relief well is the Development Driller III,
a vessel owned by Transocean, the same company that owned the rig
that exploded 17 days ago.
During a visit to Biloxi, Miss., Homeland Security Secretary
Janet Napolitano said of the containment vessel: "I hope it works.
But we are still proceeding as if it won't. If it does, of course,
that will be a major positive development."
"We are facing an evolving situation," she warned. "The
possibility remains that the BP oil spill could turn into an
unprecedented environmental disaster. The possibility remains that
it will be somewhat less."
Meanwhile, a six-member board composed of representatives of the
Coast Guard and the federal Minerals Management Service will begin
investigating the accident next week.
And 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.