OIL SPILL IN THE GULF OF MEXICO
Growing oil spill could eventually foul South Florida beaches
As cleanup efforts continued, officials discovered new leaks in the pipes of a blown-out drilling rig in the Gulf of Mexico. The Coast Guard fears the spill could surpass the Exxon Valdez incident as the largest oil spill in North American history.
BY CURTIS MORGAN
Scrambling to head off looming ecological disaster, the U.S. Coast Guard on Wednesday set fire to an oil slick -- already the size of Miami-Dade County and expanding -- from a blown-out drilling rig spewing thousands of barrels of crude into the Gulf of Mexico.
National Oceanic Atmospheric Administration experts are estimating that 5,000 barrels a day of oil are spilling into the gulf, after the Coast Guard discovered new leaks in the pipes a mile below the ocean's surface late Wednesday, The Associated Press is reporting Thursday.
The slick's leading edge drifted toward the salt marshes of the Louisiana Delta, only 20 miles and three days from a fragile wetland rich with shrimp, crabs and crayfish. But response teams in Mississippi, Alabama and the Florida Panhandle were carefully watching shifting winds that could ultimately steer the 2,000-square-mile blob just about anywhere on the Gulf Coast.
The spill was near the Gulf's powerful ``loop current,'' which could potentially suck in the brown goo and spit it back out in the form of tar balls, fouling the Florida Keys and beaches of Miami-Dade and Broward. But the Coast Guard's highest-ranking officer said South Florida appeared to be out of the impact zone -- at least for now.
``I'm not going to rule anything out, but it's pretty remote,'' said Adm. Thad Allen, commandant of the Coast Guard, which is directing efforts to contain the spreading spill while BP Exploration and Production struggles to seal its well 5,000 feet below the ocean.
Allen, in an interview with The Miami Herald's Editorial Board Wednesday, said if the well can't be capped quickly, the accident could potentially surpass the notorious Exxon Valdez -- which dumped 11 million gallons of crude into Alaska's Prince William Sound in 1989 -- as the largest discharge in North American history.
BP, which operated the floating rig that exploded last week, killing 11 workers, has failed in efforts to close a shutoff valve with robotic subs. Deploying a dome to collect and pump leaking oil has worked in shallower coastal areas, but never in such deep water, and could take weeks. The permanent fix, drilling a relief well, could take months.
There also is concern that the damaged wellhead could give way, spewing up to 100,000 gallons a day from the site about 50 miles south of Venice, La.
``If we lose the integrity of that wellhead, it could be a catastrophic spill,'' Allen said.
The Coast Guard was already treating the spill as a worst-case scenario, Allen said, putting coastal crews on notice from Venice to Pensacola and using every tool in the slick-fighting book. Nearly 50 vessels were working the spill, either skimming oil or spraying dispersants to break it up.
With the plume still growing, the Coast Guard took the extraordinary step of trying to burn off large patches of it, beginning with test fires Wednesday that could be used more widely if effective.
``What we want to do is fight the oil spill as far off shore as we can,'' Allen said.
Wherever it winds up, the spill promises a messy and expensive cleanup at the least and potentially a major ecological disaster. Because the spill is far from land, industry experts predicted the sun and waves would dilute the impact to a degree, breaking up and evaporating much of it.
Edward Overton, a professor emeritus of environmental sciences at Louisiana State University in Baton Rouge, said it could still be nasty stuff to clean from marshes or beaches. Overton, who tested samples for the Coast Guard and the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration, said the oil has an unusually high amount of asphaltene -- heavy ingredients that make it more suitable for paving roads than powering cars.