Originally posted by Jennifer Dlouhy and Monica Hatcher - Houston Chronicle - April 30, 2010
An army of workers conducted frantic combat on Thursday with booms, chemicals and even fire to limit the damage from a massive oil spill invading the Mississippi River delta.
Pushed by swift southeasterly winds, the arrival of the oil slick opened a new chapter in the Deepwater Horizon disaster saga, both environmentally and politically as lawmakers in Washington raised the heat on the offshore energy industry.
Federal regulators sent a SWAT team of inspectors into the Gulf of Mexico area to ensure compliance with safety rules on deep water drilling rigs.
Louisiana Gov. Bobby Jindal declared a state of emergency so officials could begin preparing for the oil's impact.
And the state opened an early shrimp season in waters east of the Mississippi River to allow shrimpers to bring in as much of the commercially important catch as possible in case the spill forces fishery closures.
“The state is doing the right thing,” said Mike Voisin, owner of Motavatit Seafood in Houma, La. “Any time we have is better than none.”
Although the White House initially downplayed the possibility the incident could affect the president's just-announced plans to open up parts of the Atlantic and Arctic oceans and the eastern Gulf of Mexico for new drilling, White House spokesman Robert Gibbs acknowledged that could change, depending on the cause of the incident.
The battle to contain the oil spill emanating from an out-of-control well 5,000 feet underwater continued on Thursday with more impromptu engineering from BP, the company responsible for the environmental cleanup as the lessee of the rig. The Deepwater Horizon, owned and operated by Swiss-based Transocean, caught fire April 20 in an apparent blowout that is believed to have killed 11 people. It sank two days later.
While BP prepared to drill a relief well and finished up the design and fabrication of a pollution dome system to capture the oil flow at it source, the company also began investigating lowering coiled tubing to douse the three oil leaks with chemical dispersants.
The leaks are in the rig's mangled riser, a pipe that once connected the well on the ocean floor to surface equipment. Doug Suttles, BP's chief operating officer for exploration and production, said engineers believe the chemical might dissolve the oil and keep it from rising to the surface.
More than 100,000 gallons of the chemicals have been applied to the surface slick since the accident to help break up the spill. And on Wednesday, the Coast Guard conducted controlled burns to consume some of the oil on the Gulf's surface.
Reaching out for help
Suttles said BP had invited experts from Exxon Mobil, Shell, Chevron and Houston-based Apache to its operating center in Houston to help find new ways to cap the well, which government estimates now say is pumping as much as 5,000 barrels, or 210,000 gallons, of oil into the Gulf every day.
“We've invited the biggest oil and gas companies to bring their best experts to sit next to ours and make sure we haven't missed anything,” Suttles said.
A weeklong effort to activate a giant valve called a blowout preventer on the seabed to cut off the spill source has been unsuccessful.
As BP asked for assistance from the U.S. Department of Defense for subsea imaging technology and remote operating vehicles that aren't available commercially, Interior Secretary Ken Salazar visited the company's Houston command center Thursday for a progress update and to ensure the cleanup is going as fast as possible, said Interior Department spokeswoman Kendra Barkoff.
Salazar also ordered immediate inspections of all deepwater drilling rigs and platforms in the Gulf to determine whether their operators have completed tests of blowout preventers and drills of emergency well control procedures.
More than a dozen federal agencies are involved in the massive effort to contain the oil and prevent it from devastating fragile ecosystems along the Gulf Coast, and the White House promised a continuing, all-fronts response.
“While BP is ultimately responsible for funding the cost of response and cleanup operations, my administration will continue to use every single available resource at our disposal, including potentially the Department of Defense, to address the incident,” President Barack Obama said.
Homeland Security Secretary Janet Napolitano will join Salazar and Environmental Protection Agency Administrator Lisa Jackson in a visit to the spill area on Friday.
The Deepwater Horizon disaster is already spilling into a broader debate about the future of offshore drilling and could jeopardize congressional and administration proposals to expand energy production on the outer continental shelf.
Congress opened investigations, including summoning the heads of America's top five oil companies to a House committee hearing.
Sen. Bill Nelson, D-Fla., one of Capitol Hill's most vocal opponents of offshore drilling, introduced legislation that would block new leasing of the outer continental shelf and would force the government to suspend new exploration and production activities there until the conclusion of a joint investigation by the Interior and Homeland Security departments.
What no doubt will become a flood of litigation also continued Thursday. Brent Coon, a Beaumont attorney who sued BP following the 2005 BP Texas City Refinery explosion that killed 15 people, filed a lawsuit in Harris County naming Transocean, BP, and other companies as defendants, on behalf of an injured worker and his family.
And two Louisiana commercial shrimpers filed suit alleging the spill is threatening their livelihoods.
The EPA's Jackson reiterated that the entire cleanup bill will be BP's and said BP also should foot the costs borne by state agencies. “We will be sending a bill to BP at some point,” Jackson said.
The Deepwater Horizon rig, which started drilling near Louisiana in January, had been subject to monthly inspections by the government, with the last one occurring less than two weeks before the incident, said Deputy Interior Secretary David Hayes.
Hayes insisted that offshore drilling is “a highly regulated area” and “the fundamental practice is safe.”
“But obviously we're looking very hard at everything,” Hayes said.
Hatcher reported from Houston and Dlouhy from Washington. Brett Clanton contributed from Houston and Matthew Tresaugue from New Orleans.