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Originally published May 1, 2010 at 7:52 PM | Page modified May 2, 2010 at 2:34 PM

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Oil slick off Gulf Coast appears to have tripled in two days

A sense of doom settled over the American coastline from Louisiana to Florida on Saturday as a massive oil slick spewing from a ruptured well kept growing,

The Associated Press

ANOTHER EXXON VALDEZ? Gulf Coast catastrophe could be worse than 1989 spill. Look back at the Seattle Times' Pulitzer Prize-winning coverage of the Valdez disaster.

VENICE, La. — A sense of doom settled over the American coastline from Louisiana to Florida on Saturday as a massive oil slick spewing from a ruptured well kept growing, and experts warned of dire consequences if the Gulf Stream carries an uncontrolled gusher toward the Atlantic.

President Obama planned to visit the region Sunday to assess the situation amid growing criticism the government and oil company BP should have done more to stave off the disaster. Meanwhile, efforts to stem the flow and remove oil from the surface by skimming it, burning it or spiking it with chemicals to disperse it continued with little success.

"These people, we've been beaten down, disaster after disaster," said Matt O'Brien of Venice, whose fledgling wholesale-shrimp dock business is under threat from the spill.

"They've all got a long stare in their eye," he said. "They come asking me what I think's going to happen. I ain't got no answers for them. I ain't got no answers for my investors. I ain't got no answers."

He wasn't alone. As the spill surged toward disastrous proportions, key questions lingered: Who created the conditions that caused the gusher? Did BP and the government react robustly enough early on? And, most important, how can it be stopped?

Coast Guard officials conceded Saturday it's nearly impossible to know how much oil has gushed since the rig exploded April 20 and sank two days later. Earlier, the officials said the spill was at least 1.6 million gallons. The blast also left 11 workers missing and presumed dead. The subsequent spill is threatening beaches, fragile marshes and marine mammals, along with fishing grounds that are among the world's most productive.

Experts expect the spill, emanating from a pipe nearly 50 miles offshore and 5,000 feet underwater, will eclipse the 1989 Exxon Valdez incident at 11 million gallons as the worst U.S. oil disaster within weeks, and a growing number of experts said the situation may already be much worse.

The oil slick over the water's surface appeared to triple in size in the past two days, which could indicate an increase in the rate oil is spewing from the well, according to one analysis of images collected from satellites and reviewed by the University of Miami. While it's hard to judge the volume of oil by satellite because of depth, it does show an indication of change in growth, experts said.

"The spill and the spreading is getting so much faster and expanding much quicker than they estimated," said Hans Graber, executive director of the university's Center for Southeastern Tropical Advanced Remote Sensing. "Clearly, in the last couple of days, there was a big change in the size."

Doug Suttles, BP's chief operating officer for exploration and production, said it was impossible to know how much oil was gushing from the well, but he said the company and federal officials were preparing for the worst-case scenario.

Oil-industry experts and officials are reluctant to describe what such a scenario would look like, but if the oil gets into the Gulf Stream and is carried to the beaches of Florida, it stands to be an environmental and economic disaster of epic proportions.

The Deepwater Horizon well is at the end of one branch of the Gulf Stream, the famed warm-water current that flows from the Gulf of Mexico to the North Atlantic. Several experts said that if the oil enters the stream, it would flow around the southern tip of Florida and up the eastern seaboard.

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"It will be on the East Coast of Florida in almost no time," Graber said. "I don't think we can prevent that. It's more of a question of when rather than if."

At the joint command center run by the government and BP near New Orleans, a Coast Guard spokesman maintained Saturday that the leakage remained about 5,000 barrels, or 210,000 gallons, a day.

But Coast Guard Adm. Thad Allen, appointed Saturday by Obama to lead the government's oil-spill response, said no one could pinpoint how much is leaking from the ruptured well because of its depth.

"And, in fact, any exact estimation of what's flowing out of those pipes down there is probably impossible at this time due to the depth of the water and our ability to try and assess that from remotely operated vehicles and video," Allen said.

He also said a test of new technology used to reduce the amount of oil rising to the surface seemed to be successful.

During the test Friday, an underwater robot shot a chemical meant to break down the oil at the site of the leak rather than spraying it on the surface from boats or planes, where the compound can miss the oil slick.

From land, the scope of the crisis was difficult to see. As of Saturday afternoon, only a light sheen of oil had washed ashore in some places.

The real threat lurked offshore in a swelling, churning slick of dense, rust-color oil. The concerns about the slick are environmental and economic. The fishing industry is worried marine life will die and no one will want to buy products from contaminated water anyway. Tourism officials are worried vacationers won't want to visit oil-tainted beaches. And environmentalists are worried about how the oil will affect the countless birds, coral and mammals in and near the Gulf.

"We are just waiting," said Meghan Calhoun, a spokeswoman from the Audubon Aquarium of the Americas in New Orleans. "We know they are out there. Unfortunately, the weather has been too bad for the Coast Guard and NOAA to get out there and look for animals for us."

Fishermen and boaters want to help contain the oil. But Saturday, they were again hampered by high winds and rough waves that splashed over the miles of orange and yellow inflatable booms strung along the coast, rendering them largely ineffective. Some coastal Louisiana residents complained that BP, which operates the rig, was hampering mitigation efforts.

"They're letting an oil company tell a state what to do," said Raymond Schmitt, 57, preparing his boat to take a French television crew on a tour.

"I don't know what they are waiting on," Schmitt said. He didn't think conditions were dangerous. "No, I'm not happy with the protection, but I'm sure the oil company is saving money."

As bad as the oil spill looks on the surface, it may be only half the problem, said University of California, Berkeley, engineering professor Robert Bea, who serves on a National Academy of Engineering panel on oil-pipeline safety.

"There's an equal amount that could be subsurface too," said Bea. And oil below the surface "is damn near impossible to track."

Louisiana State University professor Ed Overton, who heads a federal chemical-hazard assessment team for oil spills, worries about a total collapse of the pipe inserted into the well. If that happens, there would be no warning and the resulting gusher could be even more devastating because regulating flow would then be impossible.

"When these things go, they go KA-BOOM," he said. "If this thing does collapse, we've got a big, big blow."

BP has not said how much oil is beneath the seabed Deepwater Horizon was tapping, but a company official speaking on condition of anonymity because he was not authorized to discuss the volume of reserves, confirmed reports that it was tens of millions of barrels.

Louisiana Gov. Bobby Jindal said he has asked BP and the Coast Guard for detailed plans on how to protect the coast.

"We still haven't gotten those plans," said Jindal.

As if to cut off mounting criticism, on Saturday White House spokesman Robert Gibbs posted a blog, "The Response to the Oil Spill," laying out the administration's day-by-day response since the explosion, using words such as "immediately" and "quickly," and emphasizing that Obama "early on" directed responding agencies to devote every resource to the incident and determining its cause.

In Pass Christian, Miss., Jimmy Rowell, 61, a third-generation shrimp and oyster fisherman, worked on his boat at the harbor and stared at the choppy waters.

"It's over for us. If this oil comes ashore, it's just over for us," Rowell said. "Nobody wants no oily shrimp."

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