Crews Working To Clear Oil Spill Near Louisiana

Last week, a deep-water drilling rig exploded, caught fire and sank off the coast of Louisiana. More than 5,000 barrels of oil spilled into the Gulf, and crews are preparing the fight it. NPR's Wade Goodwyn updates Melissa Block on the latest.

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MELISSA BLOCK, host:

Fifty miles off the coast of Louisiana, efforts continue to try to shut off the flow of oil from a collapsed rig. The well is at a depth of 5,000 feet and is leaking at least 42,000 gallons of oil a day. The Coast Guard is trying to burn some of that oil off the surface of the gulf, testing to see if it could work on a broader scale. But now, BP and the federal government are also refocusing much of their effort: They're preparing fragile wildlife refuges on the coastline of Louisiana and Alabama for the coming oil slick.

NPR's Wade Goodwyn is at the unified command center in Robert, Louisiana.

And Wade, we mentioned that the Coast Guard wanted to try an experimental burn off in the Gulf of Mexico this morning. I gather they ran into some trouble. What happened?

WADE GOODWYN: Well, it is problematic, and the Coast Guard admits that. What they're trying to do is take 500 feet of boom, skim away some of the oil off the main part of the slick then drag that away a safe distance and see if they can set it on fire with flares. This is just going to be a little bit of the slick for an experiment.

And even doing that is proving a lot trickier than they thought it was going to be. And while they hope to begin this this evening, it's been delayed.

BLOCK: And has this been done before?

GOODWYN: Well, this is not tried and true territory, that's for sure. I think they've tried to do it on a river in Texas. It may have worked there. Nobody is sure how well this is going to work in the open Gulf. It's not going to be a large percentage of the spill because burning only works where the spill is thick, emulsified, and that's really only about three percent of the entire oil slick.

So, even if this experiment works, this is not going to be a big fix. The burning is not going to compare, you know, with the skimmers, with the planes dropping dispersants. The dispersants are by far having the most impact following by the skimmers, which are a distant second.

BLOCK: And, Wade, if they do get that burn-off to work, what would be left after that of the oil?

GOODWYN: It's a solid residue that's on the surface and it can be collected. If the residue washes ashore, it's not something that would damage wildlife. Certainly no comparison with a problem a gooey oil slick would propose. But, again, this is kind of more in the way of another bullet in the Coast Guard's arsenal.

BLOCK: And we mentioned that they're now preparing coastal areas for what they fear is coming. Any sense of where the oil would be coming ashore and when it would hit?

GOODWYN: Yup. The oil's going to be coming ashore around the Mississippi River Delta. The government and BP are deploying booms. They've got about 100,000 feet of surface booms to put out there, another 500,000 feet of booms available. They're talking about it hitting Friday.

When you're talking hundreds of miles of coastline, you can see this is a defense of the most fragile areas only. There's no stopping this from coming ashore everywhere. And if it's going to be weeks of oil spilling out of this well before they could get it stopped, this could turn into quite an impressive mess.

BLOCK: Now the Coast Guard said today that U.S. Fish and Wildlife officials are trying to figure out how to remove birds from these areas that could be affected by the oil. What would they do?

GOODWYN: Well, they're going to try to scare the birds away using propane cannons and pyrotechnics - modern scarecrows, if you will. The lead time has allowed the federal government a chance to scramble to the frontlines of the fight against the oil spill. But this looks like it's going to be a long drawn-out war. And there's no question but that the oil's going to break through the lines in a lot of places.

BLOCK: And Wade, if these are nesting birds, that obviously poses all sorts of complications.

GOODWYN: Well, I mean, the U.S. Fish and Wildlife are going to try to do the best they can, but this is the calm before the storm and we'll see what's going to happen.

BLOCK: Okay. NPR's Wade Goodwyn at the unified command center in Robert, Louisiana.

Wade, thanks very much.

GOODWYN: It's my pleasure.

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