Rescuers clean a brown pelican Saturday at the Fort Jackson Wildlife Rehabilitation Center at Buras, La.
Rescuers clean a brown pelican Saturday at the Fort Jackson Wildlife Rehabilitation Center at Buras, La. Charlie Riedel/AP
BP officials said Sunday that a new mile-long tube is diverting some oil from the Deepwater Horizon well at the bottom of the Gulf of Mexico. It's the first time in more than three weeks that any of the company's strategies have worked to slow the flow.
Millions of gallons of crude are already in the water, however, and researchers said the black ooze may have entered a major current that could carry it through the Florida Keys and around to the East Coast.
BP engineers remotely guiding robot submersibles had worked since Friday to place the tube into a 21-inch pipe nearly a mile below the sea. After several setbacks, the contraption was hooked up successfully and funneling oil to a tanker ship.
Kent Wells, BP's senior vice president for exploration and production, said during a news conference that the amount being drawn was gradually increasing, and it would take several days to measure it.
"It's a positive move, but let's keep in context," said Wells. "We're about shutting down the flow of oil from this well."
The blown well has been leaking for more than three weeks, threatening sea life, commercial fishing and the coastal tourist industry from Louisiana to Florida. BP failed in several previous attempts to stop the leak, trying in vain to activate emergency valves and lowering a 100-ton container that got clogged with icy crystals.
A researcher told The Associated Press on Sunday that computer models show the oil may have already seeped into a powerful water stream known as the loop current, which could propel it into the Atlantic Ocean. A boat is being sent next week to collect samples and learn more.
William Hogarth, dean of the University of South Florida's College of Marine Science, said one model shows oil has already entered the current, while a second shows the oil is 3 miles from it — still dangerously close. The models are based on weather, ocean current and spill data from the U.S. Navy and the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration, among other sources.
Hogarth said it's still too early to know what specific amounts of oil will make it to Florida, or what damage it might do to the sensitive Keys or beaches on Florida's Atlantic coast. He said claims by BP that the oil would be less damaging to the Keys after traveling over hundreds of miles from the spill site were not mollifying.
"This can't be passed off as 'it's not going to be a problem.' " Hogarth said. "This is a very sensitive area. We are concerned with what happens in the Florida Keys."
Crews will slowly ramp up how much oil the tube collects over the next few days. They need to move slowly because they don't want too much frigid seawater entering the pipe, which could combine with gases to form the same ice-like crystals that doomed the previous containment effort.
Two setbacks over the weekend illustrate how delicate the effort is. Early Sunday, hours before a steady connection was made, engineers were able to suck a small amount of oil to the tanker, but the tube was dislodged. The previous day, equipment used to insert the tube into the gushing pipe at the ocean floor had to be hauled to the surface for readjustment.
The first chance to choke off the flow for good should come in about a week. Engineers plan to shoot heavy mud into the crippled blowout preventer on top of the well, then permanently entomb the leak in concrete. If that doesn't work, crews also can shoot golf balls and knotted rope into the nooks and crannies of the device to plug it, Wells said.
The final choice to end the leak is a relief well, but it is more than two months from completion.
Top officials in President Obama's administration cautioned that the tube "is not a solution" to the spill and said they are closely monitoring the situation.
"We will not rest until BP permanently seals the wellhead, the spill is cleaned up, and the communities and natural resources of the Gulf Coast are restored and made whole," Secretary of Homeland Security Janet Napolitano and Secretary of the Interior Ken Salazar said in a joint statement.
Meanwhile, scientists warned that miles-long underwater plumes of oil discovered in recent days could poison and suffocate sea life across the food chain, with damage that could endure for a decade or more.
Three or four large plumes have been found, at least one that is 10 miles long and a mile wide, said Samantha Joye, a marine science professor at the University of Georgia.
The hazardous effects of the plume are twofold. Joye said the oil itself can prove toxic to fish swimming in the sea, while vast amount of oxygen are also being sucked from the water by microbes that eat oil. Dispersants used to fight the oil are also food for the microbes, speeding up the oxygen depletion.
"So, first you have oily water that may be toxic to certain organisms and also the oxygen issue, so there are two problems here," said Joye, who's working with a group of scientists who discovered the underwater plumes in a recent boat expedition to the Gulf. "This can interrupt the food chain at the lowest level, and will trickle up and certainly impact organisms higher. Whales, dolphins and tuna all depend on lower depths to survive."
Researchers Vernon Asper and Arne Dierks said in Web posts that the plumes were "perhaps due to the deep injection of dispersants which BP has stated that they are conducting."
These researchers were also testing the effects of large amounts of subsea oil on oxygen levels in the water. The oil can deplete oxygen in the water, harming plankton and other tiny creatures that serve as food for a wide variety of sea critters.
Oxygen levels in some areas have dropped 30 percent, and should continue to drop, Joye said.
"It could take years, possibly decades, for the system to recover from an infusion of this quantity of oil and gas," Joye said. "We've never seen anything like this before. It's impossible to fathom the impact."