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Oil in Lake Pontchartrain stokes worries in New Orleans

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By Ylan Q. Mui and David A. Fahrenthold
Tuesday, July 6, 2010; 9:26 PM

Experts say that the newly discovered oil in Lake Pontchartrain near New Orleans is not likely to cause much environmental damage. But the presence of tar balls and oil sheen so close to the Big Easy is a psychological blow.

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"This proves that the oil can come in," said John Lopez, director of coastal sustainability for the Lake Pontchartrain Basin Foundation. "It's kind of, on an emotional level, disconcerting to see this happen."

High seas and strong winds over the weekend pushed the oil into the 630-square-mile lake that borders the city and its major suburbs and is primarily used for recreation.

Much of the oil gushing from the Deepwater Horizon explosion more than two months ago has washed ashore near small Gulf Coast towns that are at least a two-hour drive from New Orleans. But Lopez said he had long predicted that the leaking crude could make its way into the lake, especially after Tropical Storm Alex churned through the region last week.

On Friday, one of Lopez's assistants spotted tar balls along Cat Island, off the coast of Mississippi. By Sunday, evidence of the oil had traveled west, to a narrow waterway known as the Rigolets that feeds into Lake Pontchartrain. By Monday, tar balls were washing up near the Treasure Isle community in suburban Slidell, on the eastern edge of the lake.

Lopez said he notified authorities, who had also spotted the oil. He estimated the amount at less than 100 barrels (4,200 gallons) and said it was possible that the oil could move farther into the lake. In fact, he said, the direction of the wind could push it right up to the small beach near the University of New Orleans, where his office is located. He has tasked a staffer to begin walking the beach daily in search of tar balls.

Because the oil found thus far was a relatively small amount and highly weathered, Lopez said he did not expect it would cause much damage to the lake environment. But he said he was most concerned about the impact on the blue crabs, shrimp and fish that live in the lake when they are not in the Gulf. His group is seeking $7 million to fund a five-year impact study.

"It's a co-dependency," he said.

The wind was causing problems well out to sea as well. The area around the leaking wellhead, nearly 50 miles off the Louisiana coast, was buffeted Tuesday by strong, 20-knot winds and resulting waves that topped five feet high Tuesday. Those conditions were too rough for most of the "skimmer" boats assigned to the gulf, said Thad W. Allen, who has retired as a Coast Guard admiral but has stayed on as the national incident commander for the spill.

In addition, Allen said, the waves were delaying efforts to hook up a third siphon from the leaking well to a ship on the surface.

A ship called the Helix Producer has arrived at the site, with the capacity to increase the roughly 25,000 barrels a day (1.1 million gallons) being siphoned from the well to more than 53,000 barrels (2.2 million gallons). But connecting it to the siphon requires workers to descend to a platform just above the water's surface; if the waves are too high, the platform might be dangerously unsteady.

A National Weather Service forecast said waves are expected to remain this high until at least Thursday.

Allen spoke from BP's U.S. headquarters in Houston, where he was meeting with the oil company's leaders about what may be the next step to contain the leaking well.

That would entail removing the current containment cap, which fits over a stub of pipe leading out of the well's blowout preventer on the seafloor. This cap leaks on purpose: If oil doesn't seep out, officials fear that seawater will leak in and create slush-like "hydrates" that will gum up the system.

Allen said the next step is to replace that cap with a tighter-fitting one that would allow no oil to escape. But the process could take seven to 10 days, he said, during which oil would leak from the pipe stub. Now, he said, officials will debate when -- and whether -- to do it. He said that if the Helix Producer brings up enough oil, it may not be necessary to replace the cap.

"The question is, do we want to wait and look at the product" that comes up after the Helix Producer is connected?, Allen said.

In addition, Allen said that tar balls found along the Texas coast this week did not appear very weathered, making it unlikely that they had floated from the leaking well. Instead, he said, officials believe that they may have been accidentally carried to Texas by vessels working for the cleanup effort.


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