May 7, 2010 in Nation/World

Installing box perilous

Device could be working by Sunday
Harry R. Webe And Tamara Lush Associated Press
Associated Press photo

A containment vessel is shown positioned near the Q4000, a mobile offshore drilling unit, which was lowering the vessel on Thursday evening over the oil leak at the site of the Deepwater Horizon rig collapse.
(Full-size photo)

ON THE GULF OF MEXICO – Workers were ready to lower a giant concrete-and-steel box over the blown-out oil well at the bottom of the sea Thursday in a risky and untested bid to capture most of the gushing crude and avert a wider environmental disaster.

A crane started lifting the box late Thursday from the boat named The Joe Griffin to start slowly lowering it into place.

“We haven’t done this before. It’s very complex and we can’t guarantee it,” BP spokesman David Nicholas warned.

The 100-ton containment vessel is designed to collect as much as 85 percent of the oil spewing into the Gulf and funnel it up to a tanker. It could take several hours to lower it into place by crane, after which a steel pipe will be installed between the top of the box and the tanker. The whole structure could be operating by Sunday.

The mission took on added urgency as oil started washing up on delicate barrier islands.

But the lowering of the box was delayed late Thursday because of dangerous fumes rising from the oily water in the windless night, the captain of the supply boat hauling the box told the Associated Press. A spark caused by the scrape of metal on metal could cause a fire, Capt. Demi Shaffer said.

Deckhands wore respirators while workers on surrounding vessels took air-quality readings.

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.

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,” the boat’s first mate, Douglas Peake, told AP.

The well blew open on April 20 when the Deepwater Horizon drilling platform exploded 50 miles out in the Gulf of Mexico, killing 11 workers. 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.

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 efforts were under way to skim, corral and burn the petroleum.

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