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Robotic submarines cap leaking oil pipe in Gulf of Mexico

By Joel Achenbach and David Fahrenthold
Washington Post Staff Writer
Thursday, May 6, 2010; A01

The battle against the giant Gulf of Mexico oil slick gained traction Wednesday, even as officials raced to prepare for a sudden course shift that could push the thick gunk into the shipping channel of the Mississippi River.

Two weeks into the crisis that began with an explosion on the rig Deepwater Horizon, robotic submarines sealed one of three leaks on the sea bottom. The mile-deep plumbing fix did not diminish the amount of oil flowing from the blown-out well, but it simplified the next step in the emergency response.

That step involves what has been called a containment dome. It's not a dome at all, but a boxy, four-story-tall, 100-ton metal structure used in shallow water after Hurricane Katrina. Refurbished and equipped with mud flaps, the dome on Wednesday was to take a 12-hour journey by barge from an industrial port to the open gulf, where it was scheduled to arrive by early Thursday above the blown-out well.

If all goes as planned, a crane mounted on a second barge will lower the dome 5,000 feet to cover the largest and most worrisome leak, a break in a 21-inch pipe known as the riser. That leak is 460 feet from the wellhead and is the source of the overwhelming majority of the oil escaping the well. The dome is supposed to capture the oil and pump it through pipes to a barge at the surface.

This will take several days to get up and running, but by Monday a significant amount of the oil gushing into the gulf may start to wind up instead in the barge, said BP Chief Operating Officer Doug Suttles. At a news conference, Suttles and other officials tried to manage expectations, noting that such a recovery operation has never been attempted at such a great depth.

"It's very complex, and it will likely have challenges along the way," Suttles said. A few hours after its scheduled departure, workers were still trying to make sure the unwieldy dome was securely fastened on the barge.

The oil itself remained offshore for another day, but it is spreading, creeping closer to the Mississippi River Delta and threatening Louisiana's Chandeleur Sound and Breton Sound. The three-day forecast by the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration projected that the oil will move into the Mississippi's deepwater entrance, known as the Southwest Pass, and drift west of the delta, which would be dire for the fishing industry along that stretch of the Louisiana coast.

'Heavy sludge'

On Tuesday, leaders of the National Wildlife Federation set out in a boat from Pass Christian, Miss., and found oil about 18 miles off Mississippi.

"The first thing that hit us 18 miles from the Biloxi wetlands was the nauseating smell, like spilled gasoline at a gas station, but stronger," Jeremy Symons, a spokesman for the group, wrote in an e-mail. "Then we ran into a seemingly endless sea of brown heavy sludge floating on the water. With open ocean behind us, the oil sludge spread in front of us as far as we could see."

In Plaquemines Parish, La. -- the area that follows the Mississippi to its mouth, and the land nearest to the oil leak -- Parish President Billy Nungesser said he feared that the fishing ban east of the river's mouth would be extended west.

"Half the people can't pay their light bills," he said. "If they close the western side, the other half will be out of work."

Better weather and calm seas, a meteorological anomaly recently, made possible a controlled burn of the oil on the surface for the first time in a week. A fleet of boats skimmed oil from the surface, and planes dropped chemical dispersants wherever the slick edged toward Louisiana's coastal islands.

BP is holding off on spraying chemical dispersants at the seabed where the oil is leaking, pending an analysis of possible environmental impacts. Federal officials completed a second round of testing late Tuesday night on the chemical dispersant, Corexit 9500. Environmental and watchdog groups have questioned the dispersants' potential effect on the gulf's most sensitive areas, because the government has not previously conducted detailed studies of the compound's subsea ecological impact.

Some good news

The bulletins from the gulf have been bleak for two weeks, so the news first thing Wednesday morning was a morale boost for the improvised army of government and oil industry workers who have been swarming the spill. Robotic submarines, which have been sending video feeds from the bottom of the gulf and attempting to activate the malfunctioning "blowout preventer" on the wellhead, turned their attention to a leak at the end of the drill pipe, which sticks from the end of the pretzeled riser. First the submarines sawed off the end of the pipe, giving it a clean cut. Then they clamped on a valve and shut off the leak.

"We feel great about sealing that leak. It is absolutely a success for us, but it's not the ultimate success that we want. Our main goal is to stop the flow completely. This is a piece that gets us a little closer to that," BP spokesman Bill Salvin said.

Now, the same amount of oil will flow from the two remaining leaks as previously flowed from all three. It's like a garden hose: Put your thumb over one leak, and the water will come out stronger from the others.

The third leak comes from an irregular crack in the riser where it is sharply kinked about five feet above the blowout preventer.

The stuff that has spewed is like tar, Symons said after he picked some out of the sea.

"It quickly coated both my hands in a greasy, heavy brown coating that clung to my hands and was impossible to dislodge until I vigorously scrubbed it with a towel," Symons said. That could cause problems for the pelicans, dolphins and other creatures that live in these waters: "There are no towels in nature."

Fahrenthold reported from Louisiana. Staff writers Juliet Eilperin, Marc Kaufman in Louisiana and Steven Mufson contributed to this report.

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