Containing The Gulf Coast Oil Spill

Doug Helton, of the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration's emergency response division, talks to Melissa Block about the oil spill in the Gulf Coast. The two discuss the ongoing efforts to stop the underwater spill, and what is being done to clean it up.

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MICHELE NORRIS, host:

From NPR News, this is ALL THINGS CONSIDERED. Im Michele Norris.

MELISSA BLOCK, host:

And Im Melissa Block.

A thousand barrels of oil a day continue to spill into the Gulf of Mexico from a blown out oil well. BP's Deep Water Horizon oil rig exploded last week and sank in the Gulf, about 50 miles off the Louisiana coast. Eleven workers are missing and presumed dead.

The oil spill covers an area 42 by 80 miles, but so far has not reached the coastline. Crews are trying to contain the spill and to cut the leak off at its source, 5,000 feet below the surface.

Doug Helton is incident operations coordinator with NOAA, thats the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration, which is part the team responding to the spill.

Mr. DOUG HELTON (Incident Operations Coordinator, National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration): Well, the Deep Water Horizon was a very large mobile drilling unit. It's actually considered to be a ship, and that was attached to a long pipe called a riser. The ship was drilling in such deep water that it's not actually anchored or attached to the seafloor. It's dynamically positioned.

When this caught fire and then ultimately sank, the rig ended up upside down around 1500 feet from the well opening. And that mile of pipe is now collapsed on the seafloor like a pile of really thick spaghetti, almost. So it's essentially a giant kinked garden hose.

BLOCK: Well, let's walk through what they're trying to do here, first in terms of the oil coming - not the oil thats already been released but the oil thats still coming out and they want to prevent from coming out. Explain whats going on, on the ocean floor.

Mr. HELTON: Well, the blowout preventer is a very large device on the seafloor. It's the size of small house. And they're trying manually activate it. This is a device thats supposed to trigger when there's a pressure blowout in the line or for some reason they lose control of the well. And in this case, that blowout preventer didnt appear to activate and the engineers - the petroleum engineers are trying to figure out why.

There apparently are some methods to manually activate that but thats been tried almost daily for the last week, and that hasnt been successful.

BLOCK: So thats one thing they're trying to do. They're also, I gather, trying to collect oil thats being released in a kind of dome. How does that work?

Mr. HELTON: This is called a pollution dome. And it's basically a fabric tent or some other kind of material that lowers down over the leaking pipes. Now, the well itself is not directly leaking. Whats leaking is the bent pipes on the seafloor that used to be riser that went to the oil rig. So there's a couple different spots in that pile of piping that are leaking, and thats what they're going to try to cover.

BLOCK: So you're basically try to corral that oil, get it to someplace where you could, what, suck it?

Mr. HELTON: So it could be pumped to the surface.

BLOCK: Mm-hmm, and get rid of it that way.

Mr. HELTON: Yes.

BLOCK: And then, of course, there's the oil that is already is on the surface, right?

Mr. HELTON: Right, there are various methods being used to contain and deal with that problem. One of them is to use skimming vessels and another is to use dispersants that are applied via aircraft.

BLOCK: Whats your worst fear from a spill like this?

Mr. HELTON: Well, you know, every day we have another thousand barrels and so that would add a lot of oil out in the Gulf of Mexico. And at some point we're going to start to see more significant interactions with wildlife and fisheries and wetlands, and those kinds of resources.

BLOCK: Have you dealt with a spill like this before from an oil rig?

Mr. HELTON: I've dealt with spills from rigs but this is pretty unique, partly because the release is coming from the seafloor at over a mile at depth. So there have been rig accidents in the past where there's been discharges from the sea surface, and there have been smaller ones from the seafloor. But this is one of the largest offshore platform spills in a generation.

BLOCK: Doug Helton, thanks very much.

Mr. HELTON: You're welcome.

BLOCK: Doug Helton is incident operations coordinator with NOAA, the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration.

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