VENICE, Louisiana, May 4 – British Petroleum readied to launch an unprecedented effort on Tuesday to contain a widening oil leak with a giant dome, amid signs of growing political fallout across the United States from the disaster.
BP Chief Operating Officer Doug Suttles said that the company had fashioned the first of three domes designed to be placed Tuesday "over the leak sources and allow us to collect the oil, funnel it up through pipework to a drill ship called Enterprise on the surface."
He added that the company expects "to load out the fabricated containment chamber tomorrow and we hope to have the system up and operating within a week."
But even as the company was putting in place new ways to contain the epic oil slick, the political impact of the crisis was being felt clear across the United States, as California Governor Arnold Schwarzenegger on Monday backed away from a contentious drilling proposal off the state\’s southern coast.
Weekend storms grounded aerial sorties of dispersants and prevented skimming vessels from mopping up the growing 130-mile (200 kilometer) by 70-mile (110 kilometer) slick, which could wreak huge economic and environmental damage on the fragile region. Related article: Aftermath of Exxon Valdez still felt
But an army of more than 2,500 responders and some 200 boats took advantage of better forecasts Monday to lay out miles of protective booms, relaunch skimming vessels and train local fishermen for the cleanup effort.
"It\’s looking better," said Petty Officer Curtis Ainsley, the leader of a coast guard team surveying the widening slick and installing mobile protective boom stations on boats.
"If we can get the seas to lay down for us we can make a dent," Ainsley said. "As soon as we can get the vessels here and the booms laid down we can get started skimming."
A vast amount of crude, estimated to be at least 210,000 gallons a day, has been streaming from the wellhead below the Deepwater Horizon rig that sank on April 22, two days after a massive explosion that killed 11 workers.
The spill, now thought to be running into the millions of gallons overall and covering an area the size of a small country, has sparked fears of an environmental catastrophe. Related article: Cargo ships in Mississippi may need oil cleaned from hulls
Louisiana boasts some 40 percent of US wetlands — prime spawning waters for fish, shrimp and crabs and a major stop for migratory birds — and cleaning up a maze of channels accessible only by boat would be all but impossible.
BP has been operating a fleet of robotic submarines in the murky depths for more than a week to try to activate the blowout preventer, a giant 450-tonne valve system that should have shut off the oil after the initial accident.
One has also been pumping dispersant directly into three leaks, but overflight data is needed before it is known if this is having a significant impact on the amount of oil reaching the surface.
Sunday afternoon BP started operations on a relief well, penetrating the sea floor as it began drilling down to approximately 18,000 feet so that special fluids and then cement ultimately can be injected in to cap the oil. Related article: BP planning Tuesday launch of dome to cap oil leak
With this process expected to take up to three months, immediate attention is focusing on giant containment structures that could be deployed as early as this weekend to cover the leaking pipe a mile down on the seabed.
Suttles admitted there would be "technical challenges" in trying to sink a 65-tonne structure down so deep, but said that despite the extreme pressure physics was to some extent in their favor.
"What allows this to work is the fact that oil is less dense than water and wants to float.
"Essentially an oil column exerts less pressure than a water column so that helps push the oil to the surface and we can assist that with other means."
Although President Barack Obama spoke Sunday during a visit to the region of a "potentially unprecedented environmental disaster," no impacts of oil on US shores have yet been confirmed.
Meanwhile California officials had been in favor of the proposed drilling project off the coast of Santa Barbara, northwest of Los Angeles, saying it could help raise 100 million dollars towards narrowing California\’s budget deficit. Related article: Fishermen fear for catch, livelihood as mass spill looms
But the Gulf of Mexico disaster has convinced the governor more drilling is not the answer.
"It will not happen here in California," Schwarzenegger said at a news conference.
"You turn on the television and you see this enormous disaster and you say to yourself \’Why would we want to take that risk?\’ The risk is much greater than the money is worth."