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Today's Top News
USCG May Ignite Oil Slick to Prevent Unparalleled Destruction
Fears Grow over Oil Spill off US Coast
NEW ORLEANS, Louisiana – US officials may attempt a controlled burn of a spreading oil slick in the Gulf of Mexico Wednesday to protect coastlines, as the coast guard warned the deadly disaster could become one of the worst spills in US history.
Southern states along the Gulf Coast were bracing for the possibility that beaches and fisheries, crucial to the region's economy, could be gunked up as early as this weekend by oily ooze from a huge slick with a 600-mile (965-kilometer) circumference that has moved within 21 miles of the ecologically fragile Louisiana coast.
Efforts by BP, which leases the Deepwater Horizon platform that sank into the ocean last week, failed Tuesday to cap two leaks in a riser pipe that had connected the rig to the wellhead, despite the operation of four robotic submarines some 1,500 meters (5,000 feet) down on the seabed.
As a back-up, engineers are frantically constructing a giant dome -- the first of its kind -- that could be placed over the leaks to try and stop the oil from spreading as some 1,000 barrels of oil per day pours from the ruptured pipe.
Officials said they were considering a controlled burn of oil captured in inflatable containment booms to protect shorelines -- although such a burn-off and the accompanying air pollution would present its own environmental problems.
"I am going to say right up front: the BP efforts to secure the blowout preventer have not yet been successful," Rear Admiral Mary Landry told a press conference Tuesday, referring to a 450-tonne machine that could seal the well.
Asked to compare the accident to the notorious 1989 Exxon Valdez oil tanker disaster, Landry declined but said: "If we don't secure the well, yes, this will be one of the most significant oil spills in US history."
The US government promised a "comprehensive and thorough investigation" into the explosion that sank the platform and pledged "every resource" to help stave off an environmental disaster.
The rig, which BP leases from Houston-based contractor Transocean, went down last Thursday 130 miles southeast of New Orleans, still burning off crude two days after a blast that killed 11 workers.
The widow of one of the dead has filed a lawsuit accusing the companies that operated the rig -- BP, Transocean and US oil services behemoth Halliburton -- of negligence.
The slick could now reach Louisiana's wetlands -- which are a paradise for rare waterfowl and other wildlife -- within days if the winds change.
"It is the closest it's been to shore through this response," said Landry.
BP has sent a flotilla of 49 skimmers, tugs, barges, and recovery boats to mop up the spill, but their efforts were hampered at the weekend by strong winds and high seas.
Northwest winds blowing the oil away from Louisiana were predicted to keep the slick from reaching shore through Thursday at least.
A rig is on stand-by to start drilling two relief wells that could divert the oil flow to new pipes and storage vessels.
But BP officials say the relief wells will take up to three months to drill, and with oil gushing into the Gulf of Mexico at the rate of 42,000 gallons a day, the dome is seen as a better interim bet.
US Coast Guard spokesman Prentice Danner told AFP the dome will take two to four weeks to build.
"This is the first time this has ever been done. This idea didn't exist until now. It has never been fabricated before," he said.
The exact dimensions and design of the dome were still being worked out, but officials said it would be similar to welded steel containment structures called cofferdams that are already used in oil rig construction.
"If you could picture a half dome on top of the leak and the oil collects inside of this dome and is pumped out from there, that is the idea behind it," explained Danner.
BP chief executive Tony Hayward expressed confidence an environmental disaster would be averted as he acknowledged that strong first-quarter results Tuesday had been overshadowed by the "tragic accident."
Landry noted that the deadly rig accident has not disrupted offshore gulf oil production -- which accounts for one third of the US energy supply.
Louisiana Governor Bobby Jindal, meanwhile, ordered all flags over state buildings to fly at half-staff as a token of respect for the 11 workers who are missing and presumed dead.