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Crews Race to Contain Spreading Oil Spill

Robotic submarines and hundreds of workers are struggling to contain an oil spill in the Gulf of Mexico, stemming from last week's rig fire off the Louisiana coast. Judy Woodruff talks to David Kennedy of the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration about the spill's environmental effects and cleanup effort.

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    That deep water oil spill in the Gulf of Mexico moved closer to the U.S. coast today. The heavy crude was leaking from the site of a sunken rig, 40 miles off the Mississippi Delta. It covered almost 2,000 square miles as it drifted toward four states and spread east and west.

    Hundreds of miles of fragile Marine ecosystems were in the oil slick's path, leaving shrimp, fish, coral and barrier islands in jeopardy. The trouble started last Tuesday when the oil rig Deepwater Horizon exploded. It sank two days later, with 11 workers missing and presumed dead.

    At first, an oil spill from the rig appeared to be under control. But, on Saturday, a much larger leak was discovered one mile below the surface at the wellhead on the ocean floor. It's been spilling up to 42,000 gallons of oil a day since the explosion.

    Charlie Henry is with the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration.

    CHARLIE HENRY, environmental scientist and scientific support coordinator, National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration: But the size of the slick, it really is hard to get a handle on it other ways, because we can actually measure the perimeter of it. But, each day, it changes a little bit. Sometimes, it's longer. Sometimes, it's shorter. And that's a reflection of how the winds change. So, we give some numbers that show the general size of it, but it's always changing a little bit every day.


    BP, which leased the rig, said it had 700 workers and 32 cleanup ships available, but high seas forced them to suspend operations over the weekend.

    At the same time, submersible robots were trying to activate valves at the wellhead, known as blowout preventers, to cut off the leak. If that doesn't work, this Transocean driller could drill relief wells to stop the flow of oil. But it could take months.

    In the meantime, the weather could keep the crude from hitting shore for at least three days. But communities from Louisiana to Florida were bracing for the worst.

    WILLIE DAVIS, harbor master, Pass Christian, Mississippi: Everybody is on alert on the whole coast, because, you know, they do that for precautions, just in case something happens, so you have got to get prepared. If we have — anything tries to get inside the harbor area and contaminate the harbor, we have booms. We can wrap off the harbor and at least contain this area.


    It was unclear what else could be done, with in-shore shrimp season opening next month and crab season already begun.

    We have more now on the potential impact of the growing spill and the cleanup job ahead.

    David Kennedy is the acting assistant administrator for the national ocean service, a department of NOAA, the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration. NOAA is assisting the Coast Guard.

    David Kennedy, thank you for being with us.

    Just to help us understand, so this was oil that was coming up through a well head that had been drilled deep in the Gulf, and now there's a leak at the wellhead, two leaks at the wellhead?

    DAVID KENNEDY, National Ocean Service Acting Assistant administrator, National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration: That's correct.

    Once the rig itself exploded and then caught fire and sunk, the pipe was broken. A blowout preventer failed initially to shut off the leak. And that's where the leak is currently coming from, yes.


    And what is the force that's pushing the oil out? Is it just the pressure from the original drilling?


    It's not so much from the drilling as from the reservoir. This rig was actually drilling into a known reservoir. And so there's pressure within that reservoir. And that pressure is what's pushing the oil out.


    So, 42,000 gallons a day is what's being reported. Why did it take from Tuesday until Saturday to figure out that this leak was there?


    A variety of reasons. To begin with, when you have an explosion and a fire, human health is the primary concern. And so the search for the missing and rescuing those that did survive was the primary mission, and then, too, with a fire — and, as you mentioned, there was a fire for the first couple of days — very difficult to determine just how much product you might have on the water.

    We knew that the rig itself had diesel oil, and so a combination of a variety of factors makes it extremely difficult, especially when you're searching for survivors, to know in the first day or two exactly what the situation is, until you have a chance to kind of move on to the assessment, the recovery after the rescue operation.


    But you're confident or the — I guess everybody involved is confident now it's the two leaks; there aren't more leaks involved?


    Well, I think it's an ongoing issue.

    And when you have something this complex that I think, as you mentioned, is almost a mile deep in the ocean, you're always assessing and evaluating, trying to find out more. But, as of right now, yes, those are the leaks that we're aware of. And I have heard nothing to substantiate any other leaks.


    So, help us understand how difficult it is for this — there's this submersible down there trying to — is it turn valves to affect the blowout preventer? Help us understand how that works.


    Well, blowout preventers are not my expertise. I'm more on the effects of the oil and on the environment.

    But I understand, just listening to the news, that, yes, again, 5,000-plus feet below the surface, a remote vehicle trying to activate the blowout preventer to actually pinch the pipe off and stop the leak. And, as you can imagine, at 5,000 feet, with a remotely operated vehicle, that's a very difficult process.


    So, let's move to the environmental concern. What is — what are the concerns at this point? I know there's already oil on the ocean floor or the Gulf floor.


    Well, a variety of concerns. And, again, we continue to try and assess this.

    Any time you have an event of this magnitude, there are a number of issues you immediately begin to look at. And, obviously, the first thing is, where is that oil going to go, and over what period of time is it going to move and in what direction, and where ultimately will it impact?

    It's bad enough that you have a spill in the ocean. And we're currently, with all of the trust resource agencies, diligently trying to do overflights to see what out there might be affected. I think the one thing that has been reported is that there were some sperm whales that were sighted in the vicinity, not in the oil.

    But, obviously, there's a variety of other types of wildlife in the ocean, including marine mammals, birds, fish. And we're trying to do the best assessments we can. Right now, we don't have any specific impacts, beyond seeing the whales in the area.

    But, again, we will be looking — we are looking at where the oil potentially will go. And, as the oil gets closer to shore, the types of impact and the magnitude of the issues really get magnified.


    Can you describe for us what the ecosystems are, plant and animal life, that are at risk?


    As you — of course, in the deeper water, as I already mentioned, you have marine mammals, turtles, whales, that are moving out in the open ocean. If they come in contact with the oil, they're affected in a variety of different ways.

    Depends on the shape that the oil is in. Oil weathers and degrades after it is released. As it gets further and further removed from its actual release, it becomes more sticky. And so in the beginning you have toxicity is more of an issue with exposure to the marine mammals. But as the oil weathers and becomes more sticky and tar-like, then the oil adhering, either to the feathers of a bird or to a turtle shell or other kinds of marine mammal, become more of an issue.

    And, again, then, as you move closer to shore and you get into more shallow water, depending on the energy and the oil that remains as it begins to get close to shore and impacts the benthic communities near shore, we begin to talk about oysters and crabs, of course, and shrimp. All of those are a little closer to shore and in shallower water primarily.

    And they begin to be affected as that oil comes close to shore. As you heard earlier, we are now predicting that — at least three days until there's any potential shoreline impact. And right now, the winds have shifted around. And we're getting west and north winds, which are actually pushing that slick back towards the source and maybe buying us some more time.


    How does this compare with previous spills you have had to deal with and others at NOAA?


    I was a science coordinator for the Exxon Valdez, which was an 11 million gallon spill. We're not into that range yet.

    So, a little bit depends on the longevity of this spill. No question, any time you have a spill where you're releasing 42,000 gallons a day, in this country, a major spill is in the 50,000-100,000 gallon range. So we're already there.

    But it has the potential to be a very, very, much more significant spill than it currently is. And the longer it takes to have the blowout preventer either work or, as you mentioned, the weeks and potentially months for relief wells, then we begin to get a more and more significant event.


    David Kennedy with the National Ocean Service, thank you very much.


    Thank you. You're welcome.