Emergency teams launched a “controlled burn” operation on Wednesday to stop a giant oil slick in the Gulf of Mexico from washing up on Louisiana’s ecologically fragile coast.
A fleet of skimming vessels deployed by the US Coast Guard and British energy giant BP were sweeping the most dense concentrations of crude into a 500-foot (150-meter) fire resistant boom.
“This oil will then be towed to a more remote area, where it will be ignited and burned in a controlled manner,” a joint statement said.
The decision to burn the oil was taken after a slick with a 600-mile (965-kilometer) circumference spread within 23 miles of Louisiana’s wetlands, which are an important sanctuary for waterfowl and other wildlife.
Mopping up in the marshy swampland would be next to impossible and the slick would also imperil the state’s 2.4-billion-dollar-a-year fisheries industry, which produces a significant portion of US seafood. Chrono: Worst oil spills over 40 years
Lieutenant Commander Cheri Ben-Iesau of the US Coast Guard told AFP that the initial burn-offs would be evaluated before any larger operations were attempted. As of 1800 GMT, no trial fires had been set, officials said.
“Today they are just seeing this as a kind of trial fire to see if it even can be done,” she said. “I believe that they use an actual accelerant to start it. You can’t just throw a match in it and have it start.”
Oil, at the rate of 42,000 gallons a day, is spewing from the riser pipe that connected the Deepwater Horizon platform to the wellhead before the rig sank last week after a deadly explosion that killed 11 workers.
BP, which leased the semi-submersible rig from Houston-based contractor Transocean, has been operating four robotic submarines some 1,500 meters (5,000 feet) down on the seabed to try and cap the well.
They have failed so far to fully activate a giant 450-tonne valve, called a blowout preventer, that should have shut off the oil as soon as the disaster happened but only partially reduced the flow.
As a back-up, engineers are frantically constructing a giant dome that could be placed over the leaks to trap the oil, allowing it to be pumped up to container ships on the surface.
Another Transocean drilling rig is also on stand-by to drill two relief wells that could divert the oil flow to new pipes and storage vessels.
But that would take up to three months and the dome is seen as a better interim bet even though engineers need two to four weeks to build it.
Tuesday’s oil burns could present their own environmental problems, sending huge plumes of toxic black smoke into the sky and leaving mucky residue in the sea.
“We don’t want anyone downwind from the smoke,” said Ben-Iesau. “There are obviously dangers inherent in these sort of operations working offshore with a lot of big vessels.”
The US government’s Environmental Protection Agency was to monitor air quality throughout the operations and officials gave assurances that the burning would be halted if safety standards were breached.
Coast Guard Rear Admiral Mary Landry, who is leading the government’s response to the disaster, warned on Tuesday that if BP fails to secure the well it could end up being “one of the most significant oil spills in US history.”
The US government has promised a full investigation into the explosion that sank the platform and pledged to do all it can to stave off an environmental disaster.
The spill also threatens to whip up a new political squall at a critical moment for a Democratic climate bill.
President Barack Obama dismayed some supporters and environmental groups when he announced in March that his administration would explore lifting bans on offshore drilling in certain waters in a wider overhaul of energy policy.
But assurances by the oil industry that new exploration is environmentally safe are now drawing new scrutiny.
The Deepwater Horizon rig went down last Thursday 130 miles southeast of New Orleans, still blazing two days after the blast that killed 11 workers as it dramatically sank into the sea.
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 accident has not disrupted offshore gulf oil production, which accounts for more than a quarter of the US energy supply.
USCG,April 28, 2010;