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Gulf Oil Burn Begins as Leak Creeps Toward Louisiana Coast

April 28, 2010 at 12:00 AM EDT
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Crews in the Gulf of Mexico began to burn parts of an oil slick from last week's rig explosion that is now threatening the coastline. Judy Woodruff talks to two experts about the challenges of stopping the leak and getting rid of the oil spill.

JUDY WOODRUFF: The U.S. Gulf Coast watched and waited today, hoping much of an oil slick can be burned off at sea. It was all a race against time, before the oil reaches shore.

The Coast Guard approved a plan to ignite a series of small, controlled fires in the open ocean.

REAR ADMIRAL MARY LANDRY, U.S. Coast Guard: This burn will occur within a very small area at sea within 500 feet of fire-resistant boom. I want to emphasize that, putting this in perspective, this in situ controlled burn will not be the same size or scale of what we observed on the Deepwater Horizon as it was on fire.

JUDY WOODRUFF: Work boats were set to corral several hundred gallons at a time. The oil would be towed farther out, then set afire. Satellite images showed the oil now spreading over an area 100 miles long and 45 miles across at its widest point.

The slick was just 20 miles east of the mouth of the Mississippi River, teeming with wildlife, and close to rich oyster grounds. If not contained, the oil could reach land by Friday.

CHARLIE HENRY, environmental scientist and scientific support coordinator, National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration: If the results are good and we’re happy with the results, then the effort will be to get more and more teams out there duplicating that same result to provide benefit. You know, we will learn more today at the end of the day, once we find out how the initial burn went.

JUDY WOODRUFF: The burn is the latest effort to stop the oil spewing from an offshore rig, the Deepwater Horizon, that exploded and sank last week. Eleven men were presumed killed.

When the rig went down, the pipe that carried the oil from the wellhead on the ocean floor bent and cracked. Roughly 42,000 gallons of oil have spilled every day since then. Earlier this week, crews launched submersible robots, tried and failed to turn a shutoff valve at the wellhead a mile deep.

Now, BP, the rig’s operator, is sending in a second rig. Its job is to drill a relief well, lower pressure at the blowout site, and stop the leak, an operation that could take months.

In the meantime, officials are hoping the controlled burns will do the trick. But, along the Gulf Coast, fishermen and others were preparing for the worst.

MAN: We hope it doesn’t come this way.

JUDY WOODRUFF: And state officials in Louisiana and elsewhere raced to try to keep as much of the oil out as possible.

REAR ADMIRAL MARY LANDRY: Robert Barham, the Louisiana secretary of wildlife and fisheries, has requested that the Delta Wildlife Management Area be boomed off, as a precaution, in the event the — the oil does make it to the shoreline.

JUDY WOODRUFF: And, in Boston today, U.S. Interior Secretary Ken Salazar promised, the federal government will spare no effort to prevent an environmental disaster.

KEN SALAZAR, U.S. interior secretary: What’s going on in the Gulf of Mexico today is something which we are watching and monitoring on a — not on an hourly basis, but every single minute. And everything is being done to deal with that situation.

JUDY WOODRUFF: For now, the financial costs are already mounting. BP says containment operations are costing $6 million a day. And the ultimate cost to fisheries, tourism and the environment could be staggering.

For more now on the spill and the difficulties in stopping it, we talk to two people who are tracking this, Doug Helton, the incident operations coordinator for NOAA, the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration, and Nancy Kinner, an environmental engineer and co-director of the Coastal Response Research Center at the University of New Hampshire.

Thank you both for being with us.

Doug Helton with NOAA, I’m going to start with you. I think we got a sense from looking at a diagram, which you might not have been able to see, of what happened under the water, but just so that we’re clear, why has it been so difficult to get to the site of these leaks?

DOUG HELTON, Incident Operations Coordinator, National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration: Well, this — this release is over a mile deep, and in a tangle of steel pipe that’s the remainder of the drill riser that was severed when the rig sank, so it’s a very complicated situation on the seafloor.

JUDY WOODRUFF: And difficulty with visibility, and what else?

DOUG HELTON: Well, it’s visibility in terms of depth, in terms of the ability of these underwater vehicles to manipulate devices that they need to. There’s a — it’s a very challenging place to be working. It’s very much like you’re working on the moon or something.

JUDY WOODRUFF: And just to try to simplify what they’re doing, or to make it easier for people to understand, they’re working efforts on the surface of the water to get at the spill that’s already there, and then under the water at the source.

But let’s talk about the surface right now. Let me first ask you about this burn technique that they’re using, Doug Helton. It sounds like they’re only able — going to be able to do a small amount at a time. They haven’t even started yet.

DOUG HELTON: Right. The burning is a technology we have used before, and it — the idea is we want to get as much of this oil off the water as we can before it gets ashore.

One of the ways to do that is to burn it. There are vessels out there and fireproof boom that are collecting the oil, but, as I understand, the burn hasn’t yet been initiated.

JUDY WOODRUFF: Nancy Kinner, I’m going to bring you in here.

They have also been doing other things. They have — I guess, by airplane, they have been dropping chemical dispersants on the oil on the surface. Tell us how that works.

NANCY KINNER, environmental engineer, Coastal Response Research Center Co-Director, University of New Hampshire: Yes, what they do is, they fly a plane over surface of the water, and they spray out a material that’s very similar to detergent that you would use in your laundry machine.

The — one part of the molecule has a head on it that actually dissolves into the oil, and the other part has a tail that dissolves into the water. And, so, if there’s agitation from waves, what will happen is, that little tail will jiggle the oil droplet out of the actual slick and dissolve it into the water below.

And, so, the whole idea here is that you get rid of the slick, and dissolve that oil into the water column, and mix it in and dilute it out.

JUDY WOODRUFF: They’re still talking about, though, as we said, a pretty sizable slick. Do we know how effective that dispersant has been?

NANCY KINNER: The dispersant has worked somewhat. But the problem here is that, the longer the spill goes on, the release goes, without being contained, when you have the wind and the waves that come up and push that oil slick towards the shoreline, it becomes difficult to keep — keep it from the shoreline, because it’s just releasing all of the time.

So, you can imagine, with something like that, to keep hitting it with either burning or dispersants, it’s difficult, especially if the weather doesn’t cooperate. And that’s the big key.

JUDY WOODRUFF: And we mentioned the burning.

Doug Helton, back to you. Let’s — take us now back down under water, where they are — they have been trying, I guess, to get a dome-like device together, to get it under the water to cover up where the leaks are?

DOUG HELTON: Yes, there’s a couple of different approaches.

I think that the command is still trying to activate the blowout preventer. And then there is construction of this underwater dome that’s ongoing as we speak.

JUDY WOODRUFF: This is a — as I understand — just to stop you — that the blowout preventer was this valve that supposedly would cut off the flow of oil, but it hasn’t happened?

DOUG HELTON: Right. That’s a large valve on the seafloor. It’s designed to trigger when there’s a release from the seafloor.

And engineers are still trying to figure out why it didn’t trigger in this case. So, while they work on that problem, they’re trying to control the leaking oil by putting in this dome structure, and then they’re also planning to drill relief wells. And all three efforts are ongoing as we talk.

JUDY WOODRUFF: And what’s the earliest any one of those could — could work?

DOUG HELTON: Well, the hope is that the blowout preventer is successful. But they keep — they have been trying that for nearly a week now and running out of options for triggering that.

The dome structure, I understand, would take several weeks to implement. And then the drilling is sort of the last resort. And that would take two to three months to become effective.

JUDY WOODRUFF: Now, meanwhile, Nancy Kinner, 42,000 gallons of oil spewing out of those leaks every day, onshore, what is the worry? We’re now told it’s just maybe a few days away from reaching the mouth of the Mississippi River.

NANCY KINNER: Well, that whole area and much of the coast in that area has very sensitive salt marshes, which have a lot of bird life and shrimp, crabs, et cetera. It’s an area that’s teeming with life.

And those marshes have been under siege from things like the hurricanes, coastal erosion, some naturally occurring subsidence. And, therefore, they’re already stressed. And having this oil come into that area presents — presents a real — an extra stressor to those organisms.

JUDY WOODRUFF: So, what can be done? We have heard them talk about putting the boom material along the shoreline. Can they do that along the entire shoreline? How does that work?

NANCY KINNER: Well, there’s a limit to how much boom you can deploy. But there are some other options if the oil does get onto the shorelines and the marshes. They could try potentially a very controlled burn there. Those kinds of things are options.

Obviously, none of the options are desirable in that, remember, this whole situation is a tradeoff. Once the oil is released, you are just trying to minimize the impacts, so that the boom is one impact-prevention device. But booms oftentimes don’t work well if you have high waves or high currents, those kind of things. The oil can get over the top of them.

So, it’s all a tradeoff to figure out best way to do this. But, as I have said to several people, we have the best system in the U.S. of the world to how — how to deal with this. But all the options, really, are just trying to minimize the impact. It will be very difficult, as Doug has said, if this goes on for a long time, to keep all the damage from happening.

JUDY WOODRUFF: Doug Helton, from NOAA’s standpoint, what are the main worries at this point?

DOUG HELTON: Well, we’re concerned about a number of resources that are out offshore in the Gulf of Mexico. Those include fisheries resources, marine mammals, turtles, fisheries resources in the Gulf.

And then, as you get closer to shore, those concerns increase dramatically. You start getting into much more sensitive and productive estuary habitats. You start getting into areas where there’s very active commercial fishing for shrimp and oysters.

And, in all these marshes, you have very intense bird use and other kind of wildlife in those marshes. So, the goal is to try to keep as much as we can offshore, but we — I agree with Nancy that we’re just trying to make the best tradeoffs we can, and that we’re not going to be able to prevent injury from happening.

JUDY WOODRUFF: It’s — it sounds daunting.

Doug Helton with NOAA, and Nancy Kinner, we thank you both.

NANCY KINNER: Thank you.

DOUG HELTON: Thank you.