NEW ORLEANS – Oil company engineers on Sunday finally succeeded in keeping some of the oil gushing from a blown well out of the Gulf of Mexico, hooking up a mile-long tube to funnel the crude into a tanker ship after more than three weeks of failures.
Millions of gallons of crude are already in the water, however, and researchers said the black ooze may have entered a major current that could carry it through the Florida Keys and around to the East Coast.
BP PLC engineers remotely guiding robot submersibles had worked since Friday to place the tube into a 21-inch pipe nearly a mile below the sea. After several setbacks, the contraption was hooked up successfully and funneling oil to a tanker ship. The company said it will take days to figure out how much oil its contraption is sucking up.
The blown well has been leaking for more than three weeks, threatening sea life, commercial fishing and the coastal tourist industry from Louisiana to Florida. BP failed in several previous attempts to stop the leak, trying in vain to activate emergency valves and lowering a 100-ton container that got clogged with icy crystals.
Computer models show the oil may have already seeped into a powerful water stream known as the loop current, which could propel it into the Atlantic Ocean.
William Hogarth, dean of the University of South Florida’s College of Marine Science, said one model shows oil has already entered the current, while a second shows the oil is 3 miles from it – still dangerously close.
Hogarth said it’s still too early to know what specific amounts of oil will make it to Florida, or what damage it might do to the sensitive Keys or beaches on Florida’s Atlantic coast. He said claims by BP that the oil would be less damaging to the Keys after traveling hundreds of miles from the spill site were not mollifying.
“This can’t be passed off as ‘it’s not going to be a problem.’ ” Hogarth said. “This is a very sensitive area. We are concerned with what happens in the Florida Keys.”
BP had previously said the tube, if successful, was expected to collect most of the oil gushing from the well. On Sunday, the company said it was too early to measure how much crude was being collected and acknowledged the tube was no panacea.
“It’s a positive move, but let’s keep in context,” said Kent Wells, BP’s senior vice president for exploration and production. “We’re about shutting down the flow of oil from this well.”
Crews will slowly ramp up how much oil the tube collects over the next few days. They need to move slowly because they don’t want too much frigid seawater entering the pipe, which could combine with gases to form the same ice-like crystals that doomed the previous containment effort.
The first chance to choke off the flow for good should come in about a week. Engineers plan to shoot heavy mud into the crippled blowout preventer on top of the well, then permanently entomb the leak in concrete. If that doesn’t work, crews also can shoot golf balls and knotted rope into the nooks and crannies of the device to plug it, Wells said.
The final choice to end the leak is a relief well, but it is more than two months from completion.
Top officials in President Barack Obama’s administration cautioned that the tube “is not a solution” to the spill and said they are closely monitoring the situation.
“We will not rest until BP permanently seals the wellhead, the spill is cleaned up, and the communities and natural resources of the Gulf Coast are restored and made whole,” Secretary of Homeland Security Janet Napolitano and Secretary of the Interior Ken Salazar said in a joint statement.
Meanwhile, scientists warned of the effects of the oil that has already leaked into the Gulf. Researchers said miles-long underwater plumes of oil discovered in recent days could poison and suffocate sea life across the food chain, with damage that could endure for a decade or more.