Gulf oil spill gushes on; Jindal wants to build up barrier islands to stop slick

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 Steven Mufson and Marc Kaufman
Washington Post Staff Writer
Sunday, May 9, 2010

BP's effort to contain the oil leaking into the Gulf of Mexico ran into technical obstacles over the weekend that increased the likelihood of a prolonged battle to stop the leak. Faced with the prospect of a widening slick, Louisiana Gov. Bobby Jindal (R) proposed a more radical response: dredging the Mississippi River to create a string of barrier islands to protect the coastline.

The best hope for quickly stemming the flow of oil gushing into the Gulf of Mexico dimmed late Friday when icelike crystals clogged a containment box that was designed to funnel oil into barges on the water's surface.

BP said it had moved the four-story-tall steel box 200 meters away from the leaking pipe and set it down on the muddy sea floor while the company tries to figure out how to solve the problem. Finding a solution could be difficult, however, because extremely high pressure and low temperatures on the sea floor spur the combination of water and natural gas from the damaged well into slushy substances called hydrates.

"I wouldn't say it's failed yet," BP chief operating officer Doug Suttles said of the containment box. "What I would say is what we attempted to do last night didn't work because these hydrates plugged up the top of the dome."

The setback means that oil will continue leaking from the damaged exploration well that blew out on April 20, setting afire and sinking the Deepwater Horizon drilling rig. The well is estimated to be pouring 5,000 barrels a day of crude oil into the Gulf of Mexico.

A Coast Guard official said Saturday that tar balls believed to be from the giant spill had started to wash up on an Alabama island three miles from the coast. Chief Warrant Officer Adam Wine said about a half dozen tar balls had been collected at Dauphin Island.

Faced with the slow but steady advance of the oil slick, Jindal proposed dredging soil from the Mississippi River to create a ring of islands to protect the state's shorelines. He said the plan would create some new barrier islands and connect existing ones, including some that are federal wildlife preserves. He said that 12 dredges had been identified to begin the work and that he had sent the plan to federal officials for "quick approval."

Speaking at the Cypress Cove Marina in Venice, La., Jindal added that he expected BP to pay for the project, which he estimated would cost "hundreds of millions of dollars."

Earlier, Jindal flew over the Chandeleur Islands, about 10 miles off the coast, and said "stranded oil" was ringing some of them. "It was almost like a ring around a bathtub," he said. He said that changing weather conditions will bring the oil onto islands repeatedly and that "we now expect oil to impact repeatedly."

Jindal said he was "very disappointed" that BP's containment box had run into problems.

BP said that it had anticipated problems from crystals of gas hydrates, but not this soon or this fast.

The company said that natural gas surging up along with crude oil from the underground reservoir had combined with sea water to form the icelike crystals. Those crystals had blocked an opening at the top of the 100-ton steel box that had been placed over the oil leak on the sea floor. The opening was supposed to connect to a pipeline that would have funneled the oil and gas to a ship on the surface of the water 5,000 feet above.

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