Oil makes landfall in Louisiana as BP positions its containment funnel

Barbara Groves for Bellona

Publish date: May 5, 2010

Written by: Charles Digges

PASS CHRISTIAN, Mississippi – A ship carrying a giant metal containment box has arrived at the site where a sunken oil rig has been leaking oil into the Gulf of Mexico for more than two weeks as Coastguard officials have made their first reports of oil hitting land in Southern Louisiana.

Oil giant BP says it hopes the 90-tonne device, which was graved by Wild Wells and set sail a day early for the site of the leak, will help to contain the oil. But Coastguard officials in Louisiana remain sceptical the funnel box will have much impact on the amount of oil being spilled.

When the Deepwater Horizon righ, operated by BP, exploded 50 miles of the coast of Venice, Louisiana on April 22, it left three geysers of crude at the bottom of the sea spewing an estimated 5,000 barrels of oil a day. Yesterday, BP offcials upgraded that estimate to 60,000 barrel s a day while speaking in Congress.

Eleven rig workers died in the explosion, and the ensuing oil leak has since been threatening several southern US states.

Today, the Coastguard confirmed that that oil is washing up on the US shoreline for the first time since the explosion.

“We have teams that have confirmed oil on the beach, at the south end of the Chandeleur Islands, at Freemason Island,” coastguard spokeswoman Connie Terrell said.

“This is the first confirmation that Unified Command has received of oil on a shoreline,” she added. “It’s largely just sheen, there is no evidence of medium or heavy oil.”

Heavy crude, however, is expected to make landfall mid to late next week. The National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration (NOAA) said the oil slick was not expected to move much in the next several days.

Mayor Tommy Longo of Waveland, Louisiana, where the sheen was washing shore,  said “We can clean the beaches if it happens, but they will be the easiest thing to clean. If oil gets into our estuaries and tributaries and where are our fisheries are, into those pristine marshes, it will devastate the fisheries for years to come.”

BP spokesman John Curry said three emergency response teams had been sent to Freemason Island, 30 miles off the mainland.

Inflatable booms to try to protect the prime marsh and wildlife area were being deployed, Curry said.

“We are doing everything we can to make sure a major impact doesn’t happen,” Mr Curry said.

The Chandeleur Islands form the easternmost point of Louisiana and are part of the Breton National Wildlife Refuge.

They are the second oldest refuge in the United States and home to countless endangered shorebirds.

Meanwhile, the problem only seems to be getting worse today. Workers have laid an enormous boom across Bay St. Louis in Mississippi to protect the bay, which surrounds Pass Christian, from inflowing oil sheen.

A view from 3000 feet above the water off the coast of Louisian revealed miles long streaks of orange – the result of chemical dispersants mixing with oil. Driving along highway 90 on the Gulf Coast of Mississippi revealed the air was heavily permeated with strong oil fumes.

Lowering the funnel

Remote-controlled submarines will be used to lower the BP containment device over the leak.

The operation to fix the massive funnel in place is expected to take two days, and a further two days will be required to connect it to a ship above via a drill-pipe. If the operation is successful, BP hopes to begin pumping oil to the surface early next week.

BP has never deployed such a structure at a depth of 5,000ft (1,500m) and difficulties may occur, said BP Chief Executive Tony Hayward.

Hayward gave no prediction as to when the oil leak would be stopped, or how much the clean-up operation will ultimately cost.

He denied his company had been slow to react to the disaster, saying BP had mobilised immediately to contain the threat, and adding that it was working with US authorities to contain the spill.

“It’s a military operation and we are thinking of it as a battle on three fronts: beneath the sea, in the sea, and on the shore,” Hayward  told reporters.

He said efforts to protect the southern US coastline were going well, with 100 ships involved in an operation to skim oil from the sea’s surface – including 20 of the world’s largest skimming vessels.

Thousands of feet of boom were being used as a barrier to contain the slick and a small air force was deploying dispersants, he added.

Some 4,000 volunteers were being paid $10 an hour to help defend the beaches.

Wildlife concerns

Earlier, BP said it had managed to seal the smallest of the three leaks spilling oil into the Gulf of Mexico. Oil is still gushing into the sea, but officials say working with only two leaks – the third to be capped with the funnel – makes tackling the spill easier.

Favourable weather conditions have now allowed crews to begin burning off more of the oil where it is most heavily concentrated, AP said.

A burn was last tried on 28 April when thousands of litres of oil were successfully removed. Gulf residents said the burn was evident in the air as the smell of diesel blew in from the sea.

Concerns for the impact of the burn on wildlife in the area have been dismissed by the body co-ordinating the response to the spill.

BP has told members of a US congressional committee that up to 9.5m litres a day could spill if the leaks worsen.