Emergency workers brace as oil reaches Louisiana coast | Environment| All topics from climate change to conservation | DW | 30.04.2010
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Emergency workers brace as oil reaches Louisiana coast

Emergency workers have been laying protective barriers around the ecologically delicate coastal regions of Louisiana for days, but British Petroleum's well continues to leak toxic crude into the Gulf of Mexico.

A boat trailing boom line in the Gulf of Mexico.

75 response vessels were on the water Friday

The southern US states of Alabama, Louisiana and Florida declared states of emergency on Friday, as the first waves of a major oil slick began to wash ashore in the Gulf of Mexico.

Alabama Governor Bob Riley called the spill a "serious threat to our environment and economy." US President Barack Obama called for a "thorough review" of the disaster, which could soon surpass the 1989 Exxon Valdez disaster as the worst oil spill in US history.

Nearly 2,000 people are working to contain a spreading oil slick which appeared after explosions on the Deepwater Horizon 209 kilometers (130 miles) southeast of New Orleans sank the semi-submersible oil rig on April 22.

The Deepwater Horizon burns.

The oil rig Deepwater Horizon sank after exploding

Several leaks some 1,524 meters (5,000 feet) below the surface of the Gulf of Mexico continue to spew an estimated 5,000 barrels of toxic crude oil each day. The Deepwater Horizon had dug an exploratory well and efforts to stop its leaking have not succeeded.

It's the first such disaster in the Gulf since 1979 when the Mexican oil rig Ixtoc 1 exploded near the Yucatan Peninsula. Although Ixtoc 1 was only in 50-meter-deep water, the resulting oil spill lasted 10 months.

Crews have cordoned off sections of Louisiana's ecologically sensitive wetlands with protective barriers called booms, more than 66,000 meters of which were used with 93,195 meters remaining available Friday. Similar actions are being taken in Mississippi, Alabama and Florida, and 75 boats were on the water Friday. BP has been contracting commercial fishermen to help place booms.

Wildlife & fisheries threatened

The oil threatens to devastate both wildlife and Louisiana's fishing industry valued at 1.8 billion euros ($2.4 billion) annually.

Nesting brown penguins behind floating boom line.

The nesting grounds of brown pelicans are at risk

Tom MacKenzie of the US Fish and Wildlife Service was in Venice, La. at the mouth of the Mississippi River on Friday. The nearby Breton National Wildlife Refuge is currently home to 1,200 brown pelicans nesting for the season. MacKenzie hadn't seen any oil Friday morning.

"The booms that we've been putting in place for the last several days are in place, which is good news. The bad news is there is wind which is increasing, and tidal action is increasing. The waves are getting higher, and that's expected to increase until it peaks on Sunday," he told Deutsche Welle.

In addition to the nesting brown pelicans, about 34,000 flying birds are in the area, according to MacKenzie.

"We're concerned about all of them, but the nesting ones are the top priority. All we can do is plan for the worst and hope for the best, and we've been doing that. We can't boom off everything. There's just not enough to boom off everything, and so we have to prioritize," he said.

According to Glen Brooks of the Florida-based Gulf Fishermens’ Association, shrimpers in Louisiana and Alabama have opened their season several weeks ahead of schedule in an attempt to catch what they can before the oil washes in.

Well still leaking

US Coast Guard Petty Officer Prentice Danner, stationed in Robert, La., said working conditions are dangerous because of the combination of toxic oil, airplanes, helicopters and boats. Crews had recovered 20,313 barrels of an oil-and-water mixture on Friday.

"We're doing the best we can, but the problem remains that the oil is still leaking. Along with stopping the oil spill itself, our focus now is to ensure that the oil is cleaned up once it hits the shore, and the oil that is still at sea is mitigated as best as possible," he told Deutsche Welle.

Efforts to deal with the oil slick include collecting it, attempting to condense it in size with skimming vessels and burn it, and dropping chemical dispersants on it from airplanes. Already 527,909 liters (139,459 gallons) of dispersant have been used with 193,000 liters remaining available Friday.

A helicopter flies in Louisiana.

Helicopters, airplanes and boats are being used to combat the oil slick

Safety equipment failed

BP has been using six remotely-operated submarines in an attempt to manually activate the well's failed blow out preventer via an underwater control panel. The 450-ton piece of equipment was manufactured by the Houston-based company Cameron, and should have controlled any surges in pressure coming from the well.

Deepwater Horizon was being leased to BP by Transocean, also based in Houston. Another Transocean rig, the Development Driller III, is expected to begin drilling a relief well this weekend near the site of the catastrophe. The new well will take two or three months to dig, but will take pressure off the leaking one, allowing it to be capped.

Novel technique being used

A London-based BP spokesman said experts from other oil companies had been brought in to help, and a novel technique is being tested for the first time.

Oil in the Gulf of Mexico.

Oil continues to leak into the Gulf of Mexico

"What we are now looking at doing is using flexible tubing to take the dispersant right down to the well head and to try and inject the dispersant where the oil is most concentrated," he told Deutsche Welle.

Dispersant may prove to be more effective if applied directly at the site of the leak.

According to the BP spokesman, engineers have worked through a series of standard procedures attempting to activate the well's blowout preventer, which was checked at two-week intervals by the US Minerals Management Service.

Once the problem is solved, "the well we've had a problem with will be sealed and capped forever," while the relief well could "at some point in the future be used to produce oil commercially," the spokesman said.

US President Barack Obama has said BP is legally obligated to pay for response and cleanup costs.

Author: Gerhard Schneibel/AFP/AP

Editor: Susan Houlton

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