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Oil washes onto US shores as latest spill solution stalls

US oil slick forming into smaller patches: Coast Guard
Mobile, Alabama (AFP) May 14, 2010 - The massive oil slick in the Gulf of Mexico, seen from the air, has developed into a multitude of orange-colored bands separated by open water. An overflight of the area in which an AFP journalist participated showed the unusual pattern, confirming comments about the oil from US Coast Guard officials. "These overflights give responders a good aerial picture of the situation, give us where the oil is, where it may be heading, and they also allow us to do better planning on the way we organize resources," said Coast Guard spokesman Nyx Cangemi. The orange-looking oil bands appeared to be several meters (yards) wide instead of one single patch of oil.

The irregular patterns could complicate the work of some 13,000 people deployed in the region to contain the oil threatening the coasts of Louisiana, Mississippi, Alabama and Florida. Earlier, officials said the oil slick was shifting its pattern and breaking up into smaller patches. "We've had reports of tar balls which can be manually picked up, but at this point the majority of the oil is far offshore," said Admiral Thad Allen, from the US Coast Guard. "I believe this spill is changing in its character. I don't believe any longer we have a large model spill," he told a press conference on Dauphin Island, Alabama.

Instead he explained "when the oil comes up, it's separating the different patches of oil of where you have open water between. "There's good and bad news with that. It's widely dispersed and it's hard to manage, but on the other hand, it's coming ashore in smaller quantities of what is a larger spill." More than three weeks after an explosion sank a BP-leased drilling platform in the Gulf of Mexico, the slick has yet to hit the threatened states of Louisiana, Mississippi or Alabama even though oil is gushing into the sea. Coast Guard officials working with crews from BP and other oil companies have been working to contain the spill and protect the shorelines, particularly Louisiana's fragile wetlands, home to a host of endangered species.

Some experts have said the spill may actually be at least 10 times worse than the US Coast Guard's official estimate that 5,000 barrels (210,000 gallons) of crude are gushing from the ruptured well each day. The Deepwater Horizon rig, leased by BP and owned by Transocean, was hit by an April 20 explosion that later sank the platform, killing 11 workers. Efforts by British energy giant BP to contain and ultimately stop the leak have so far failed, as they struggled Friday to insert either a tube into the fractured pipe to carry away the oil or place a containment box over the top.
by Staff Writers
New Orleans, Louisiana (AFP) May 15, 2010
Oil leaking from a ruptured well pipe in the Gulf of Mexico washed ashore in two new locations Saturday, the Coast Guard said, as the latest attempt to contain the spill faltered.

Efforts to siphon leaking oil via an "insertion tube" up to a container vessel continued a day after US President Barack Obama blasted oil companies for seeking to shift blame for a growing oil slick threatening environmental disaster.

Petty Officer Erik Swanson told AFP Saturday that oil from a riser pipe that ruptured after the collapse of the Deepwater Horizon rig had been discovered in two new locations -- Whiskey Island, Louisiana and Long Beach, Mississippi.

"We sent crews to assess what type of oil, and we determined it's 'soft patties' on Whiskey Island and 'tarballs' on Long Beach," he said.

Tarballs are small globs of oil, while soft patties are roughly six inches in diameter and more than a centimeter thick, he said.

The appearance of oil in new locations is a sign of the urgency of efforts to contain the spill, which experts warn may be growing more than ten times faster than previous Coast Guard estimates of 5,000 barrels (210,000 gallons) a day.

Scientists who analyzed the flow of oil in a video of the underwater leak fear the rate may be closer to 70,000 barrels (2.9 million gallons) a day.

The findings suggest the spill has already eclipsed the 1989 Exxon Valdez spill, which was the worst environmental disaster in US history.

BP disputes the figures, with Robert Dudley, BP's executive vice president for the Americas, telling CNN that "70,000 barrels a day isn't anywhere I think within the realm of possibility."

On Friday, a visibly angry Obama chastised British Petroleum, Transocean and Halliburton -- the firms that leased, owned and worked on the rig -- for seeking to shirk responsibility for the disaster.

He said top company officials had created a "ridiculous spectacle" in testimony before Congress and warned he would "not tolerate more finger pointing or irresponsibility."

BP, which leased the ill-fated Deepwater rig from Transocean, has pledged to pay for the costs of containing, capping and cleaning up the oil spill, and to compensate any "legitimate" claims stemming from the leak.

But multiple efforts over the last three weeks to stop the leak, or even to slow the flow of oil, have failed, and the latest attempt Saturday was proving more difficult than expected.

BP crews using remote-controlled submarines struggled to place an "insertion tube" into the leaking riser a mile (1.6 kilometers) down on the seabed.

Once inserted, the tube should be able to funnel the leaking oil up to a container vessel on the ocean surface, thought the method is untested.

"We were hoping it was going to be operational last night," BP spokesman John Crabtree said, acknowledging that the process was proving more complicated than expected.

It was unclear why engineers had failed to connect the tube, and how long they would keep trying before turning to alternative methods.

BP has already deployed to the seabed a so-called "top hat" container, which is attached to a siphon tube and could be lowered over the leak to collect and then funnel away the oil.

The method has been tried once before, but low temperatures and high pressure caused the oil to form sludge that could not be funneled away, so the container has been redesigned with a heating system.

Another option is the "junk shot," which would involve trying to plug the leak with assorted junk, including knotted rope, plastic cubes and even golf balls. The process could halt the flow altogether, or at least slow the spill.

The slick has the potential to devastate fragile and environmentally important coastline across a region where many are still recovering from the effects of Hurricane Katrina in 2005.

"I'm not going to rest or be satisfied until the leak is stopped at the source, the oil in the Gulf is contained and cleaned up, and the people of the Gulf are able to go back to their lives and their livelihoods," Obama vowed Friday.

The president said he had ordered "top to bottom" reform of the Minerals Management Service, decrying the "cozy relationship between the oil companies and the federal agency that permits them to drill."

He also promised a review of compliance with environmental regulations after reports that MMS allowed BP and other oil firms to drill in the Gulf of Mexico without the required permits.

earlier related report
US approves use of subsea dispersants to battle oil slick
New Orleans (AFP) May 14, 2010 - US officials on Friday approved the use of controversial subsea chemical dispersants to battle a massive oil spill gushing out of a ruptured offshore well deep in the Gulf of Mexico.

"This was not a decision that was made lightly," said US Coast Guard Rear Admiral Mary Landry.

Landry told reporters that the approval was only granted after a team of experts analyzed the results of three tests of subsea dispersant use.

Environmentalists, scientists and fisherman have raised concerns that the dispersants could be creating a toxic soup in critical habitats and simply shifting the damage from the oil out of sight.

"It's a series of tradeoffs," Landry acknowledged.

"Our focus in this response is to respond to what's out there and fight this spill as far offshore as possible."

More than 517,000 gallons of dispersants have already been sprayed on the surface of the massive slick which has been growing by the day since the BP-leased Deepwater Horizon rig sank on April 22 after a huge explosion.

For the past two weeks a US federal agency has conservatively estimated the leak at some 210,000 gallons per day, but scientists who analyzed recently released video showing the oil spewing from the busted pipe say as much as 2.9 million gallons could be pumping uncontrolled into the Gulf every day.

The dispersant effort is meant to break down the oil so that over time, the slick is reduced to smaller particles that biodegrade instead of being left as chunky, thick globs that can choke both wildlife and vegetation.

Injecting dispersants directly into the plume of oil gushing out of a ruptured pipe on the seabed "might be a better option" because it "requires less by volume than what you might use on the surface," Landry said.

"We're really trying to minimize the impact on the environment as much as possible," she said.

Crews have also attacked the growing slick with controlled burns and have skimmed more than six million gallons of oily water off the surface.

Those operations are dependent upon calm seas, whereas the robots used to inject the dispersants into the plume can work in rough weather.

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Benefits of dispersants in treating spill must outweigh costs: EPA
Venice, Louisiana (AFP) May 12, 2010
Chemical dispersants will be used to battle a massive Gulf of Mexico oil spill only as long as their environmental benefits outweigh the costs, the head of the US Environmental Protection Agency pledged Wednesday. More than 1.5 million liters (400,000 gallons) of dispersants have been sprayed across the massive slick spreading out of the wreckage of a BP-leased offshore rig which sank nearly ... read more

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