Gulf Oil Spill: Quick Fix Dashed as BP Tower Fails to Contain Oil

Published on
by
The Guardian/UK

Gulf Oil Spill: Quick Fix Dashed as BP Tower Fails to Contain Oil

First oil washes ashore in Alabama • BP engineers admit rethink is needed • Failed 100-tonne tower lifted off the seabed

by
Maev Kennedy and agencies

Oil is seen on the surface of the Gulf of Mexico as BP tries to stop oil leaking from the Deepwater Horizon wellhead in the Gulf of Mexico. Photograph: Staff/Reuters

Hopes of a quick fix to stop oil
from the Deepwater Horizon oil rig gushing into the Gulf of Mexico were
dashed on Saturday, when a build-up of crystallised gas blocked the
pipes in the huge metal containment tower, which then had to be lifted
from the seabed.

While BP
engineers wrestled with the problem, reports came in of the first tar
balls and tar beads washing up on the white sand beaches of Dauphin
Island, off Alabama.

The metal tower, specially designed and
constructed to cap the leak, is the height of a four-storey building
and weighs 100 tonnes. The hope was it would hold the oil still gushing
out of the well, which could then be siphoned out of the top, but the
blocked pipes made that impossible.

The chief operating officer,
Doug Suttles, said: "I wouldn't say it's failed yet. 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."

He predicted that it could take another 48 hours to find a resolution.

The
problem is blamed on methane gas, partly frozen into slush by the cold
temperatures on the seabed at 1,500 metres (5,000ft). Engineers
anticipated the problem, but not the volume of the gas build-up in the
pipes. Suttles said that solutions could include heating the area, or
adding methanol to break up the hydrates.

Meanwhile, oil continues gushing into the Gulf of Mexico at a rate of 4,000 barrels a day or more.

Teams
were sent by BP to Dauphin Island to test the tar washing up on the
beaches, to establish whether it really does come from the spill. They
will also lay down clusters of oil-absorbing synthetic fibres, and
build storm-fencing along the beach.

A spokesman for the spill
response command said that tar washing ashore on Alabama's beaches was
common. However, local residents, holding up fist-sized chunks, said
they had never seen anything like it before.

Construction workers
have been racing around the clock, all weekend, to finish laying a
three-mile boom across the mouth of Mobile Bay, Alabama, the ninth
largest port in the US. The boom, tethered to a line of pilings driven
into the sea bed, is being built with a double gate to allow ships to
pass through. Vessels will be held between the gates, checked for oil
contamination, and cleaned if necessary before being allowed to
proceed. The bay is also home to beach resorts and commercial and
leisure fisheries, including oyster beds.

Fishing restrictions
mean thousands of boats have been tied up idle. Oyster processing
plants are running out of supplies and shutting down, putting hundreds
of people out of work.

Wayne Eldridge, owner of J&W Marine
Enterprises, an oyster plant operator, said: "I'm screwed. The biggest
thing is I've got 35 people unemployed there."

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