USCG May Ignite Oil Slick to Prevent Unparalleled Destruction

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Agence France-Presse

USCG May Ignite Oil Slick to Prevent Unparalleled Destruction

Fears Grow over Oil Spill off US Coast

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A worker looks over an oil boom as oil is collected from the Deepwater Horizon's leaking pipeline off the Louisiana coast. (Photograph: Patrick Semansky/AP)

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.

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