The blaze rages. (Gerald Herbert / Associated…)
Reporting from Atlanta — Work crews continued their attempts Monday to stanch the 1,000-barrel-a-day oil spill that is gushing beneath the deep waters off Louisiana, as communities along the Gulf of Mexico braced for the possibility of polluted beaches and fisheries that are crucial to the region's economy.
Throughout the day, technicians maneuvered remote-controlled submarines around the leaking well left by the Deepwater Horizon drilling rig, which sank Thursday after an explosion and fire. Their goal was to seal off the well by manually activating a 450-ton mechanism called a blowout preventer, which sits atop the wellhead.
As of Monday afternoon, they had not succeeded, in part due to the difficulties of working at about 5,000 feet below the water's surface.
"It's a very challenging work environment," said Doug Suttles, chief operating officer for exploration and production for BP, which leased the rig — and is now responsible for the as-yet-undetermined cleanup costs.
The company was taking other steps to try to deal with the spill if the submarines prove ineffective. The company has filed permits with the federal government to drill new relief wells that could intersect with the original well and stop the leaking.
Construction has also begun on a dome-like collection device that could be positioned over the leak to capture the oil, then send it through pipes to a barge on the surface.
But oil company officials said that both of these solutions would take several weeks.
"I want be careful with expectations," Suttles said at a news conference in Robert, La. "This hasn't been done in 5,000 feet of water before."
The Coast Guard on Friday suspended its search for 11 workers missing after the blast, who are presumed dead. Now, the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration has turned its attention to the effect of wind and tides on the oil slick, which is about 30 miles from the coast of Venice, La., and measures 48 by 39 miles at its widest points.
For the next 72 hours, wind should move the spill southeast, away from the closest stretch of shore on the tip of Louisiana, said Doug Helton of NOAA's Office of Response and Restoration.
On Monday, skimming vessels were expected to begin removing the oil from the surface of the water, after choppy seas prevented them from doing so over the weekend. Airplanes have been spraying dispersing chemicals on the oil slick as well, said Ayana McIntosh-Lee, a BP spokeswoman.
"We're keeping our fingers crossed today that BP will be able to stop the flow — then you'll have a defined quantity and you'll be able to remediate it," said Ralph Portier, professor of environmental sciences at Louisiana State University.
But if the attempt at an immediate fix proves unsuccessful, Portier said, it will be difficult to predict where and when these large quantities of oil will emerge, because the well is so far underwater. It could show up on the surface dozens of miles away, he said.
The effect of a bigger, less manageable spill could be felt across the Gulf Coast, potentially befouling both sensitive habitats and the beaches that attract millions of visitors each summer.
Dan Rowe, president of the Panama City Beach Convention and Visitors Bureau, said he was hoping the spill wouldn't threaten a summer tourist season that attracts 3 million people to his white-sand stretch of Florida coastline.
"We certainly don't want to see oil and tar balls and environmental damage here because of the oil spill," he said. "But we have to sort of wait and see. Because there's nothing we can do to stop it at this juncture."