NEW ORLEANS - Favorable weather allowed for controlled burns of part of the massive Gulf Coast oil slick on Wednesday, while a 100-ton chamber designed to temporarily siphon oil was headed to the accident site and could be ready by Monday.
Despite the reports of progress, Interior Secretary Ken Salazar told reporters that oil giant BP's entire existence is at stake unless it finds a way to stop the leaks. "The future, the life of their company, hangs right now in indecision because they haven't yet figured out the answer to this problem," he said during a tour of the Breton National Wildlife Refuge off Louisiana.
The burns are happening near the site where the Deepwater Horizon drilling rig exploded on April 20, BP said. Two fire booms are being used to corral and then burn some of the oil.
Officials had tried a first burn on April 28 but bad weather prevented a wider deployment at the time. Controlled burns remove oil from the open water in an effort to protect shoreline and wildlife.
No populated areas are expected to be affected. The Environmental Protection Agency will monitor air quality and burning will be halted if safety standards cannot be maintained, officials said.
Prevailing winds have kept the giant oil slick offshore, two weeks after a deadly explosion on the Deepwater Horizon drilling rig triggered the breach, and the slick was barely moving on Wednesday.
"If you look at our trajectory for the next 72 hours, they don't show a whole lot of real movement from where it's at," said Charlie Henry, a meteorologist with the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration.
Siphoning on Monday?
In Port Fouchon, Louisiana, a supply ship carrying the containment chamber left at midday and was expected to arrive at the accident site, some 50 miles away, around midnight.
Doug Suttles, head of BP exploration, said the chamber would be dropped Thursday and then secured to the seafloor and then tethered to a ship over the weekend. If all goes to plan, he told a news conference, it should be working on Monday.
The chamber is the latest idea BP engineers are trying after an oil rig drilling a well for BP exploded on April 20, killing 11 workers. It sank two days later.
The chamber is intended to siphon off the gusher via a mile-long pipe onto a ship. The idea is to keep the siphon going until a relief well can be drilled in two to three months that would allow the blownout well to be capped.
BP is in charge of the cleanup and President Barack Obama and many others have said the company also is responsible for the costs.
BP capped one of three leaks at the well Tuesday night, a step that will not cut the flow of oil but that BP has said will make it easier to help with the gusher.
Containment boxes have never been tried at this depth — about 5,000 feet — because of the extreme water pressure.
"We don't know for sure" whether the equipment will work, BP spokesman Bill Salvin said. "What we do know is that we have done extensive engineering and modeling and we believe this gives us the best chance to contain the oil, and that's very important to us."
Meanwhile, the effort to protect Louisiana coastal wetlands picked up.
In Plaquemines Parish, officials loaded absorbent boom shortly after dawn to take out to the mouth of the Mississippi River. The barge will be used as a distribution point for local fishermen to lay the boom around sensitive marshes.
At a nearby marina, local shrimpers planned to use their boats to put down boom as part of a program BP is running.
In all, about 7,900 people are working to protect the shoreline and wildlife, and some 170 boats are also helping with the cleanup.
A rainbow sheen of oil has reached land in parts of Louisiana, but forecasts showed the oil wasn't expected to come ashore for at least a couple more days.
"It's a gift of a little bit of time. I'm not resting," U.S. Coast Guard Rear Adm. Mary Landry said.
In their worst-case scenario, BP executives told members of a congressional committee that up to 2.5 million gallons a day could spill if the leaks worsened, though it would be more like 1.7 million gallons. In an exploration plan filed with the government in February 2009, BP said it could handle a "worst-case scenario" it described as a leak of 6.8 million gallons per day from an uncontrolled blowout.
The worst oil spill in U.S. history resulted from the 1989 grounding of the tanker Exxon Valdez in Alaska. The tanker leaked nearly 11 million gallons of crude.
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The seas calmed Tuesday, allowing more conventional methods to contain the spill to get back on track as businesses and residents kept an eye on the ocean currents, wondering when the sheen washing ashore in places might turn into a heavier coating of oil.
Crews put out more containment equipment and repaired some booms damaged in rough weather over the weekend. They also hoped to again try to burn some of the oil on the water's surface, possibly Wednesday.
Chemical dispersants piped 5,000 feet to the main leak have significantly reduced the amount of oil coming to the surface, BP said.
From the air Tuesday, the site of the Deepwater Horizon explosion looked similar to a week ago except for the appearance of a massive rig brought in to drill a relief well to shut off the spewing oil. That will take months.
People along the Gulf Coast have spent weeks living with uncertainty, wondering where and when the huge slick might come ashore, ruining their beaches — and their livelihoods.
The anxiety is so acute that some are seeing and smelling oil where there is none. And even though the dead turtles and jellyfish washing ashore along the Gulf of Mexico are clean, and scientists have yet to determine what killed them, many are just sure the flow of crude unleashed by the explosion at BP's Deepwater Horizon is the culprit.
The rig was owned by Transocean Ltd. Some of the 115 surviving workers who were aboard when it exploded are suing that company and BP PLC. In lawsuits filed Tuesday, three workers say they were kept floating at sea for more than 10 hours while the rig burned uncontrollably. They are seeking damages.
Guy Cantwell, a spokesman for rig owner Transocean Ltd., defended the company's response, saying 115 workers did get off alive. Two wrongful death suits also have been filed.
While officials worked on cleanup, the long wait took its toll on nerves.
Perdido Key, a barrier island between Pensacola, Florida, and the Alabama state line with sugar-white sand studded with condominiums, likely would be the first place in the state affected by the oil spill. Perdido — Spanish for "Lost" — got a sniff Tuesday morning of what may be in store.
"You could smell the smell of it, real heavy petroleum base," said Steve Owensby, 54, a maintenance man at the Flora-Bama Lounge abutting the state line on the Florida side.
The air cleared later, but Owensby's 28-year-old daughter, Stephanie, who tends bar at the lounge, said some visitors have complained of feeling ill from the fumes.
"It's very sad because I grew up out here," she said. "I remember growing up seeing the white beaches my whole life. Every day I've been going to the beach ... a lot of people are out watching and crying."