Officials enlist robots to help contain oil gushing in Gulf of Mexico

Oil companies stress one another's failures in a Senate hearing as cleanup and containment efforts continue in the Gulf of Mexico, after the explosion of the Deepwater Horizon oil rig April 20.
By Ann Gerhart and Juliet Eilperin
Washington Post Staff Writer
Saturday, May 8, 2010

An ecosystem, an economy and a way of life for much of the nation's coastal southeast remained in the pincered grip of a quartet of robots on Friday, as their human handlers in Houston finally set a giant box on top of an oil leak that has spewed at least 75,000 barrels of crude into the Gulf of Mexico.

Now they will try to hook up a huge funnel that can suck the oil up and into tankers, perhaps as early as Monday. But there are several steps on the way to that fix, each one unprecedented and perilous.

"We're captives to the tyranny of what I call the distant depth, and there is no human access to the site of the spill," said Coast Guard Adm. Thad W. Allen, the coordinating commander of a response that includes nearly 8,500 personnel and 260 vessels.

While the gee-whiz action with joysticks in Houston played out a mile underwater off the coast of Louisiana, globs and slicks of the burnt orange gunk drifted ever closer to the mouth of the Mississippi River and land. The slick now is larger than Maryland.

Officials shut down additional fishing grounds, effectively putting out of work hundreds more in an industry that is the lifeblood of the region, as well as the Breton National Wildlife Sanctuary. Out in the gulf, birds dove into oily water, dolphins coughed and sharks swam in weird patterns, said marine specialists who have been out on the water tracking the disaster.

Meanwhile, two weeks after the spill and three weeks from hurricane season, Louisiana officials spoke with urgency about keeping the noxious sludge out of the marshes that are New Orleans's protection from a storm surge.

"The unfortunate reality today is that it is no longer 'what if,' " said Craig Tafarro, president of St. Bernard Parish, after a helicopter flyover of the area revealed more gooey tendrils reaching out for parish wetlands. "That is what is considered a tar ball, okay?" he said, as Louisiana Gov. Bobby Jindal (R) held up a thick handful of the glop, which has the consistency of asphalt and the stickiness of clay dosed with molasses. "This is what we cannot afford to have in our interior marshes," Tafarro said. "We cannot afford to have this on our oyster reefs. We cannot afford to have this in our shrimp beds."

As part of the frantic emphasis on prevention, on Friday the National Guard brought in 13 truckloads of "hard boom," a higher, harder plastic than the nylon barriers that have been ripped to shreds by currents and winds. Shrimpers sidelined by the fishing ban turned to laying miles of hard boom around the sea life nurseries thriving this time of year.

Some experts at oil cleanup said the balling and globbing of the oil, clearly visible on underwater video as workers lowered the container dome onto the well, may be a result of the heavy application of chemical dispersants near the leak.

Responders to the downed Deepwater Horizon rig have spent days applying more than 267,000 gallons of oil dispersant -- Nalco's Corexit 9500 -- to break up the tens of thousands of gallons of oil that have reached the ocean's surface.

EPA Administrator Lisa P. Jackson said Friday that the government was not yet ready to proceed with widespread sub-sea chemical dispersants, which work the same way dishwashing liquid works on grease, by breaking up the oil into tiny droplets dispersed in the water column. "So far the sampling is inconclusive or incomplete," she said. Scientists and policymakers agree that the oil from the spill poses a greater threat to wildlife and vegetation than the chemicals in the dispersants, but it's unclear whether these compounds will wreak havoc on the marine system over time. They never have been used at this depth, the complicating factor in this deepwater disaster.

In Washington, the spill appeared to be gumming up chances to pass climate change legislation this year.

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