Monday, November 29, 1999

BP struggles in latest bid to contain U.S. oil spill

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British energy giant BP's latest effort to contain the massive Gulf of Mexico oil spill has run into problems, U.S. Interior Secretary Ken Salazar said on Saturday, while the company's chief executive appeared to dismiss the disaster as "tiny."The accident is threatening an environmental and economic calamity along the U.S. Gulf Coast.With crude oil gushing unchecked from its blown-out offshore well a mile (1.6 km) deep on the floor of the Gulf, London-based BP said on Friday that it was attempting to guide undersea robots to insert a small tube into a 21-inch (53-cm) pipe, known as a riser, to funnel the oil to a ship at the surface.Salazar said BP experienced early problems inserting the tube but the effort was still under way. The company's previous attempt to contain the oil using a giant containment dome failed last week."They had to reconfigure, but they are back down again with the riser insertion tube trying to get it into the end of the riser pipe. They are hopeful that they will be able to make some progress on that today (Saturday)," Salazar told reporters during a visit to the Fort Jackson Wildlife Rehabilitation Center in Buras, Louisiana.He did not elaborate on the problems involving the tube.In an interview published in a British newspaper on Friday, BP Chief Executive Tony Hayward appeared to play down what threatens to become the worst environmental disaster in U.S. history."The Gulf of Mexico is a very big ocean. The amount of volume of oil and dispersant that we are putting into it is tiny in relation to the total volume of water," Hayward was quoted as saying in Britain's Guardian newspaper.Hayward also acknowledged his job was on the line and that he would be judged by the company's response to the disaster. BP's shares have tumbled and wiped out $30 billion of market value since the disaster began last month.The spill began after an April 20 explosion on the Deepwater Horizon rig, which killed 11 workers. It threatens to eclipse the 1989 Exxon Valdez spill off Alaska as the worst U.S. ecological disaster ever.MISSISSIPPI BEACHBP spokesman Mark Proegler said oil washed up in Mississippi for the first time in the state on Saturday, when tar balls were discovered at Long Beach. Oil has now contaminated eight beaches in three states after it was also located at Whiskey Island, Louisiana, and several in Alabama.Seeking to curb the volume of oil reaching the surface, the U.S. Coast Guard and Environmental Protection Agency said they have authorized more undersea use of chemical dispersants at the source of the leak. Dispersants are designed to break the oil into small droplets more likely to sink to the sea floor.Some environmental groups and the Gulf's shrimping industry have raised concerns about the effect of the chemicals, saying the oil might not sink all the way, but become suspended in the water column and ingested by fish and other wildlife.A statement by the EPA and Coast Guard sought to allay those fears, saying dispersants are "generally less harmful than highly toxic oil" and biodegrade more quickly."Preliminary testing results indicate that subsea use of the dispersant is effective at reducing the amount of oil from reaching the surface -- and can do so with the use of less dispersant than is needed when the oil does reach the surface," the statement said.Cleanup crews continue attacking the oil slick using surface dispersants, skimming and controlled burns.CONTAINMENT BOOMSInland, BP contractors assisted by flotillas of hired shrimp boats continued to string containment booms around sensitive coastal areas, while National Guard teams with bulldozers and helicopters press on to plug gaps in booms protecting Louisiana's storm-battered shoreline to prevent oil from reaching the fragile marshlands behind them.Time is running out on the coastline, however.Local TV footage late on Friday from a helicopter flight over Louisiana's barrier islands showed miles (km) of oil slick carried by churning waves being washed through wide passes between the islands directly toward the wetlands of Terrebonne Parish.Scientists and shrimpers alike have said that contamination of marshes, the foundation for the region's economy and way of life, would be devastating.The vast but dwindling marshes are the nurseries for shrimp, oysters, crabs and fish that make Louisiana the leading producer of commercial seafood in the continental United States and a top destination for recreational anglers.U.S. President Barack Obama on Friday gave a tongue-lashing to all the companies involved in the spill -- BP, Halliburton and Transocean Ltd -- and said he would not rest until the leak was stopped at its source.Estimates of the rate of escaping oil range widely from the official BP figure of 5,000 barrels per day (210,000 gallons/795,000 liters), adopted by the government, to 100,000 barrels (4.2 million gallons/15.9 million liters) per day.(Additional reporting by Shaleem Thompson in Buras, Louisiana, and by Tony Pyle and Don Pessin in New Orleans, editing by Will Dunham)
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