A floating city springs up to contain gulf oil spill

BP, the government and an army of volunteers are fighting to contain and clean the millions of gallons of oil spewing from the site of the Deepwater Horizon explosion in the Gulf of Mexico.
By Joel Achenbach
Washington Post Staff Writer
Monday, June 28, 2010

Dead ahead through the helicopter windshield, it appears like a mirage at the hazy horizon: a city in the middle of the Gulf of Mexico.

A city on fire.

Just a few months ago, the site of the disaster, 42 miles from the last marsh grass at the very tip of the Mississippi River Delta, boasted a solitary drilling rig called Deepwater Horizon. Now that rig rests upside down in the mud at the bottom of the gulf, and in its place is a roaring industrial complex, an emergency operation unlike anything in the history of the petroleum industry.

More than 60 vessels are trying to capture the oil, burn it, disperse it, whatever it takes, while two giant rigs are drilling relief wells and officials keep their eyes on the weather reports, racing to kill the leaking well before a hurricane forces everyone to scatter to calmer waters.

This waterworld is hot, noisy and dangerous. Two flares create hypnotic focal points for the flotilla. The drill ship Discoverer Enterprise, parked directly on top of the well that exploded on April 20, is capturing oil from the well and burning gas separately. The other flare, larger, brighter, looking like an umbrella of fire turned on its side, shoots from a pipe on the well-servicing rig Q4000, which is burning both oil and gas.

If the weather turns violent, all this will have to be hastily disassembled. Right now there's a storm in the southern gulf, named Alex, the first named Atlantic tropical storm of the season, but it is moving west and appears to be on a path to spare the Deepwater Horizon site.

Officials remain anxious. Forecasters say it will be a busy storm season. This makeshift city can't ride out a major storm. The Enterprise will need up to five days of warning before gale-force winds arrive to decouple from the well that BP named Macondo, after the fictional city in Gabriel Garcia Marquez's novel "One Hundred Years of Solitude." Ships and rigs will sail away, leaving the well to gush freely until they return.

Among the vessels that would have to leave are the two enormous rigs that are drilling relief wells, which are critical to killing the Macondo well. Development Driller III was the first to begin operations, and it has burrowed more than 11,000 feet below the sea floor, homing in on the blown-out well. It can already pick up magnetic signals from Macondo's steel casing.

The second, Transocean's Development Driller II, started later and isn't as deep yet. It is 324 feet by 258 feet, dominated by a 228-foot derrick. It is here that a handful of journalists dropped in this weekend for a tour of disaster-response life.

"We want to get this thing done so bad -- it hurts. But you can only do it at a certain pace," said Mitchell Bullock, 61, the BP well-site leader, a job that more traditionally is known as "the company man." As with the Deepwater Horizon, this rig is leased by BP but is largely staffed by Transocean employees.

Even though this is an emergency operation, performed under the heat lamp of global media attention, it is also business as usual. There is no sense of crisis. The people on the rig are doing what they do best: drilling a well. They're making a hole in the bottom of the sea.

Jeremy Marts, 31, is a driller, operating out of the auxiliary drill shack. It's air-conditioned, with a glass top, protected by steel grating, that offers a view of 149 sections of drill pipe racked to the rafters, each pipe 122 feet long, at 34 pounds per foot: heavy-duty stuff that's ready to be linked together for the miles-long drilling operation.

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