BP attempts to stop oil leak

BP attempts to contain the Gulf of Mexico oil spill with a giant domelike structure to limit damage from what is becoming an environmental catastrophe.

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Coastal residents today anxiously awaited the outcome of efforts to contain the Gulf of Mexico oil spill with a giant domelike structure and limit damage from what is becoming an environmental catastrophe. A crane lowered the 100-ton dome onto the "Joe Griffin" before the barge embarked on the 12-hour journey from Port Fourchon on the Louisiana coast to the epicentre of the disaster some 80 kilometres offshore.

The structure ? a white silo with a dome-shaped top that stands five stories high ? carries with it the hopes of coastal communities from Texas to Florida whose way of life is threatened by the slick. Energy giant BP said the device is aimed at containing the oil spill to allow the crude spewing on the seabed about 1,500 metres below up to be pumped into a nearby tanker ship. "We are all hoping this containment system will work," said Coastguard Rear Admiral Mary Landry.

But she and BP officials cautioned that the operation had never been tried at such depths. "What we're undertaking is unprecedented," BP chief operating officer Doug Suttles said. "We're landing a very large, essentially, metal building." BP used the occasion to publicise the lengths to which it is going to contain the spill, bringing the barge and dome back to its starting point at one point so that media could get a second shot at its departure.

The laborious task of transporting the dome, lowering it precisely over the leak and attaching it to the ship is expected to take five days, meaning officials hope it will be operational by Monday. Meanwhile, response teams raced to stave off an environmental and economic disaster as a slick the size of a small country threatening to swamp fragile wetland nature reserves and vital fishing grounds.

BP managed to cap the smallest of three leaks haemorrhaging crude into the Gulf, and resumed burning operations later yesterday of some of the heaviest parts of the slick. The successful operation to place a valve over a ruptured pipe and shut off the flow using one of 10 remotely-controlled submarines has no impact on the volume of oil gushing into the sea, but allows efforts to focus on the two remaining leaks.

But the huge oil slick threatened a wide area and some feared the mess may be caught up the Gulf's loop current, pushing the oil slick as far as the Florida Keys. One concern would be the impact of the toxic crude on Florida's beaches and nature preserves such as those in the keys and the Dry Tortugas islands marine sanctuary, which include some of the largest and best preserved coral beds in the world.

"It would be tragic if the contamination even indirectly affected the coral," Diego Lirman, a coral expert at the University of Miami's Rosenstiel School of Marine and Atmospheric Science said. Fears are growing that sea life is already being affected in a region that contains vital spawning grounds for fish, shrimp and crabs, and is a major migratory stop for rare birds. A sea turtle was spotted swimming through part of the slick about 15 miles (25 kilometres) off the coast by a National Wildlife Foundation boat, but no animal rescue experts were on board to treat the struck animal.

More than two weeks after the Deepwater Horizon rig exploded, the full impact of the disaster is still unfolding. If estimates are correct, more than 2.5 million gallons of crude have entered the sea since the BP-leased platform spectacularly sank on April 22, still ablaze more than two days after the initial blast that killed 11 workers. The riser pipe that had connected the rig to the well head now lies fractured on the seabed a mile below spewing out oil at a rate at some 5,000 barrels, or 210,000 gallons, a day.

BP began operations on a relief well Sunday, but the process is expected to take up to three months so the containment dome is seen as the best short-term fix. In Washington, the White House said Wednesday it supported "significantly" raising the cap on damages energy firms that pollute the environment face. Under a law introduced after the 1989 Exxon Valdez oil tanker disaster in Alaska, oil companies by law must pay for the full clean-up and containment costs of any oil seeping from their facilities after an accident.

But the law caps the damages for which the firm is liable at 75 million dollars, unless the company is guilty of "gross negligence." Bills introduced in the House and the Senate would fix the cap at 10 billion dollars. * AFP