BILOXI, Miss. – Weather forecasters warned Wednesday that shifting winds could drive a massive oil spill across islands off the Louisiana coast on Friday even as British Petroleum officials announced they had succeeded in shutting off one of three leaks spewing crude into the Gulf of Mexico.
Coast Guard officials said they had taken full advantage of the weather’s lull to set fire to some of the drifting oil, and BP officials said that today they would begin wrestling a 125-ton dome into place they think is the best hope of stopping the oil’s hemorrhage from the larger of the two remaining leaks.
The push and pull of good and bad news kept emergency managers from Texas to Florida working madly to head off the worst effects of the unfolding environmental disaster, triggered by the April 20 explosion of the Deepwater Horizon oil rig and its sinking two days later. Eleven oil workers were killed.
The oil hasn’t yet hit shore, but winds that had died down Wednesday were expected to pick up today, and currents were expected to push the oil slick to the west near islands in Louisiana. Weather models suggest the bulk of the oil won’t make landfall before week’s end, officials said.
“If there is impact, it’s not going to be in the form of one giant oil slick – it’s going to be in the form of residual from the spill,” said Capt. Tim Close, the commander of U.S. Coast Guard Sector St. Petersburg. “Tarballs, what’s referred to as ‘patties,’ a darker, thicker, gooier sticky mess, but not one great sheen.”
BP had used remotely operated vehicles to install a valve late Tuesday on one of the smaller leaks at the end of a broken drill pipe, allowing them to shut off the oil there.
Hope to shut off the remaining flow, however, rests with a still more complicated solution: the placement over the largest of the leaks of the giant containment dome, which engineers hurriedly designed to fit like a hat over the gushing oil.
The dome was placed aboard a barge Wednesday and towed 60 miles to the leak, where officials hoped to begin lowering it into place today, a process that could take three days or longer, depending on the weather. It likely won’t be working until sometime early next week.
“If this works – hallelujah,” said Dr. Paul Bonner, a petroleum engineering professor at the University of Texas at Austin.
The use of the contraption isn’t a sure bet. Similar domes have succeeded in stopping leaking oil wells – most recently in the gulf after Hurricane Katrina damaged rigs – but only a few times and only with smaller leaks in shallower water – not on a gusher 5,000 feet below the surface.
Meanwhile, emergency managers pressed ahead with their plans – laying more boom to contain the oil, training fishermen to intercept oil and volunteers to clean birds, and looking for ways to head off an onslaught that could damage an ecologically sensitive region headed into its biggest tourist months.
Scientists also announced it appeared unlikely the oil was behind the deaths of dozens of endangered sea turtles whose bodies have been found in the last week along the Mississippi coast.
“Based on careful examination, NOAA scientists do not believe that these sea turtle strandings are related to the oil spill,” said Barbara Schroeder, the national sea turtle coordinator for the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration. Without visible clues of oil on the turtles, lengthy necropsies were conducted on some of the turtles Monday and more are scheduled for later this week.
Scientists reported that they found no evidence on the turtles that they’d been in contact with the oil.
The fate of seabirds in the Chandeleur Islands off the Louisiana coast also was in dispute.
The Audubon Society noted Wednesday that Chandeleur is the first of 25 important bird areas in the region where birds have been exposed to the oil.