Special Reports

Oil spill moving toward Mississippi River

BILOXI, Miss. -- Despite oil continuing to spew into the Gulf 21 days after a rig exploded, BP CEO Tony Hayward said Monday that the response to the disaster has been larger and “far more effective than any spill response hitherto, in terms of (oil) getting to shore.”

But on Monday, despite calm weather that has helped keep the spill relatively stationary, the spill appeared to be creeping toward the mouth of the Mississippi River and late last week oil had washed into the Chandeleur Islands. There were weekend reports of tar balls washing ashore on Dauphin Island, Ala. The spill appears to be moving westward, and easterly winds were expected to continue for the next couple of days.

Coast Guard Rear Adm. Mary Landry on Monday said landfall on Grand Isle, La., could happen soon, but that crews were already in place to fight this with booms and oil-absorbent material.

BP officials continue to skim and burn oil and spray dispersant on it to try to keep it from spreading, but have yet to stem the flow at a busted wellhead 5,000 feet below the surface. A relief well — two of which are being drilled by BP now — is the only sure-fire way to stop the flow. That work began a week ago, but will take three months, BP officials said.

Meantime, teams of engineers and scientists are trying to devise ways to shut it off.

The next shot at greatly stemming the flow — what’s being called a “tophat” — will be in place around the end of the week, BP officials said.

Over the weekend, a large cofferdam was lowered over one of the leaks, but ice crystals gummed up the works and the plan was abandoned. On Monday, BP said it was trying a much smaller funnel — about 4-feet wide by 5-feet tall — to direct part of the main leak up a pipe and into a collection ship.

This tophat will be lowered with a pipe already attached, and will be injected with methanol and sprayed with warm water to try to prevent ice crystals from clogging it.

Experts were also contemplating a “junk shot,” or shooting debris — possibly containing bits of car tires, other debris and even golf balls — into the piping in hopes of clogging it. If this would work, concrete could be pumped into the piping to permanently cap it. Similar junk shots were used to stop spewing wells on land in Kuwait. But, BP officials warned, this has never been done at such depths, because there’s never been such a deep blowout. It would be late next week before the junk shot could be tried.

“Nothing has ever been done at 5,000 feet,” Hayward said.

Other options include trying to cut off the piping near the wellhead and sleeving a larger pipe around that, but there are fears than any such work could make the leak worse.

BP Senior Executive VP Kent Wells likened much of the work going on below the sea with robotics to “trying to do heart surgery at 5,000 feet.”

BP Chief Operating Officer Doug Suttles on Monday said that so far crews have burned about 13,000 barrels of crude on the surface, and skimmed almost 100,000 barrels of oil-water mix, about 90 percent of which is water.U.S. Rep. Gene Taylor, D-Miss., took a two-hour flight with the Coast Guard to inspect the spill Monday morning.

“There was no oil on our (Mississippi) beaches, no oil in the Sound and none on the Chandeleur and none in the marshes that I could see.

“But the bad news is, it’s closer to the mouth of the Mississippi than it was a week or so. I’m guessing it’s about 5 miles or so from Main Pass. It has moved west, which is good news for (Mississippi).

“There was a reality check — the Coasties had gathered up about 30 pounds of tar balls on Dauphin Island (Alabama),” Taylor said. “Yes, they say it could be from the spill.”

There were reports late last week from a boater who found what he thought might be tar balls on Sand Island near the eastern end of the Mississippi barrier islands. But DMR Director Bill Walker on Monday said the samples had been tested and they were just mud, no oil.

Landry said “tar balls are easy to deal with,” and that cleanup crews had already been removing them from Dauphin Island.

Federal wildlife officials reported Monday that so far about a dozen birds had been brought in for treatment for oil exposure, and that two of them were being released Monday, one a gannet, the other a pelican.

Taylor said a C-130 airplane had just sprayed a load of dispersant when he flew over the spill Monday and “that appears to be helping,” and he saw about 30 boats pulling absorbent boom around the spill. Coast Guard and BP officials said Monday that there have been more than 120 flights of planes spraying dispersant on the oil, and BP has off-and-on been injecting dispersant into the leak on the floor of the ocean.

“Nobody is happy about this, and everybody’s disappointed the dome did not work,” Taylor said. “But the bright spot in all this is that after another week, the oil is no closer to Mississippi. The islands looked beautiful, and if I’d had the day off, I would have loved to go swimming.”

Taylor said: “Three weeks into this, it’s not on our barrier islands, not in the Mississippi Sound and not on our coast. Hopefully our creator will continue to smile on us.”

At a press conference on Monday, Walker and state Department of Environmental Quality officials said about 300,000 feet of boom had been spread across sensitive areas in Mississippi and more will be placed. They said BP has opened an office at DMR on Bayview in Biloxi where boaters can sign up to work for BP on the cleanup. They said so far 257 boats are under contract with BP and on-call should they be needed.

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