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ON THE GULF OF MEXICO (AP) — A mission to the bottom of the sea to try to avert a wider environmental disaster progressed early Friday as crews said a 100-ton concrete-and-steel box was close to being placed over a blown-out well on the Gulf floor in an unprecedented attempt to capture gushing oil.

The quest took on added urgency as oil reached several barrier islands off the Louisiana coast, many of them fragile animal habitats. Several birds were spotted diving into the oily, pinkish-brown water, and dead jellyfish washed up on the uninhabited islands.

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Douglas Peake, the first mate of the supply boat that brought the box to the spill site, confirmed he received a radio transmission from the nearby vessel lowering the device that said the device would be in position over the well soon.

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The transmission said undersea robots were placing buoys around the main oil leak to act as markers to help line up the 40-foot (12-meter) box.

The box was about 4,000 feet (1,200 meters) underwater before dawn Friday, with another 1,000 feet (300 meters) to go, Coast Guard Petty Officer Shawn Eggert said.

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Meanwhile, a separate mission was close to getting under way to spray water around the rig that’s drilling a relief well to try to reduce the level of fumes from the thick oil hampering the crew’s ability to do its work on deck.

A crane late Thursday lowered the containment vessel designed to collect as much as 85 percent of the oil spewing into the Gulf and funnel it up to a tanker. Eventually the crane would give way to underwater robots that will secure the contraption over the main leak at the bottom, a journey that would take hours.

A steel pipe will be installed between the top of the box and tanker. If all goes well, the whole structure could be operating by Sunday.

“We haven’t done this before,” said BP spokesman David Nicholas. “It’s very complex and we can’t guarantee it.”

Oil giant BP PLC is in charge of cleaning up the mess. It was leasing the drilling rig Deepwater Horizon that exploded 50 miles (80 kilometers) out in the Gulf of Mexico, killing 11 workers on April 20 and blowing open the well. It has been spewing an estimated 200,000 gallons (757,000 liters) a day in the biggest U.S. oil spill since the Exxon Valdez disaster in Alaska in 1989.

The crew of the semi-submersible drilling vessel Helix Q4000 waited hours longer that expected to hoist the contraption from the deck of the Joe Griffin supply boat because dangerous fumes rising from the oily water on a windless night had delayed the work. Joe Griffin Capt. Demi Shaffer told an Associated Press reporter aboard his boat the fear was that a spark caused by the scrape of metal on metal could cause a fire.

But the crane lifted the containment box from the deck and into the Gulf after 10 p.m. CDT (0300 GMT), dark oil clinging to its white sides as it entered the water and disappeared below the surface.

The technology has been used a few times in shallow waters, but never at such extreme depths — 5,000 feet (1,500 meters) down, where the water pressure is enough to crush a submarine.

The box must be accurately positioned over the well, or it could damage the leaking pipe and make the problem worse.

BP spokesman Doug Suttles said he is not concerned about that happening. Underwater robots have been clearing pieces of pipe and other debris near where the box will be placed to avoid complications.

“We do not believe it could make things worse,” he said.

Other risks include ice clogs in the pipes — a problem that crews will try to prevent by continuously pumping in warm water and methanol — and the danger of explosion when separating the mix of oil, gas and water that is brought to the surface.

“I’m worried about every part, as you can imagine,” said David Clarkson, BP vice president of engineering projects.

If the box works, a second one now being built may be used to deal with a second, smaller leak from the sea floor.

“Hopefully, it will work better than they expect,” Peake, said. Interior Secretary Ken Salazar on Thursday halted all new offshore drilling permits nationwide until at least the end of the month while the government investigates the Gulf spill.

Oil slicks stretched for miles off the Louisiana coast, where desperate efforts were under way to skim, corral and set the petroleum ablaze. People in Mississippi, Alabama and Florida watched in despair.

The dropping of the box is just one of many strategies being pursued to stave off a widespread environmental disaster. BP is drilling sideways into the blown-out well in hopes of plugging it from the bottom. Also, oil company engineers are examining whether the leak could be shut off by sealing it from the top instead.

The technique, called a “top kill,” would use a tube to shoot mud and concrete directly into the well’s blowout preventer, BP spokesman Bill Salvin said. The process would take two to three weeks, compared with the two to three months needed to drill a relief well.

Just after sunrise Friday, the crew of the Joe Griffin planned to spray clean water from cannons into the oil-filled waters surrounding the rig drilling the relief well. The goal is to divert some of the oil away from the rig because the fumes have been so intense that the crew of the rig has had difficulty working on its deck, which is critical to the effort to drill the well.

“Right now, we are the only boat in the zone equipped to do it,” Shaffer said of the water cannons.

The rig drilling the relief well is the Development Driller III, a vessel owned by Transocean, the same company that owned the rig that exploded 17 days ago.


[5:00 p.m. – 5/6/2010] – Crews Ready Spill Containment Box As Oil Reaches Island Shores

ON THE GULF OF MEXICO — Crews prepared Thursday to lower a 100-ton box they hoped would cut off most of the crude spewing from a blown-out well in the Gulf of Mexico, the urgency of their task underscored by oil that started washing up on delicate barrier islands.

If the concrete-and-steel box they plan to plunge a mile into the ocean works, it could collect as much as 85 percent of the oil leaking from the ocean floor. The technique has not been tried before at that depth.

“Hopefully, it will work better than they expect,” first mate Douglas Peake told The Associated Press aboard the ship that brought the box to the site. The AP is the only news organization with access to the containment effort.

It won’t solve the problem altogether. Oil has been leaking since the Deepwater Horizon drilling rig exploded April 20, killing 11 workers. Crews are drilling a relief well to take the pressure off the blown-out well at the site, but that could take up to three months.

More than 200,000 gallons of oil a day is pouring from the well, creating a massive sheen that’s been floating on the Gulf for more than two weeks. As it moved closer to land, crews were frantically laying boom and taking other steps to prevent it from oozing into delicate coastal wetlands.

A pinkish oily substance was lapping at the shore of New Harbor Island, washing into thick marsh grass. It looked like soggy cornflakes, possibly because it was mixed with chemicals that it had been sprayed to break it up before it reached land.

Offshore, birds dove into the water amid lines of orange oil, but none appeared to be in distress. There were numerous dead jellyfish, some washing up on the shore. It’s nesting time for sea gulls and pelicans and the danger is they may be taking contaminated food or oil on their feathers to their young.

People don’t live on New Harbor, which is in the Chandeleurs, an important chain of barrier islands off Louisiana that are part of a national wildlife refuge and provide a nesting ground for sea birds.

Streaks of putrid, orange and rust-colored oil were also creeping well west of the mouth of the Mississippi River in an area that has received less attention.

Much of the oil west of the river was still miles out in the Gulf, but there appeared to be little or no effort to contain or clean it up. There were hundreds of dead man-o-war there.

Out at sea, some boats were using skimmers to suck up oil while others were corralling and setting fire to it to burn it off the surface.

The Joe Griffin, the ship carrying the containment box that will be lowered to the seafloor, arrived Thursday morning at the leak site about 50 miles offshore.

Workers hope to have the device down at the seabed by Thursday evening, but it will likely be Sunday or Monday before it’s fully operational and they know if it’s working.

The crew won’t have to worry about dealing with the wreckage of the Deepwater Horizon, which sank two days after the explosion. It’s not anywhere near where they’re working. It had been operated by BP LPC, which is responsible for the cleanup.

The waters were calm Thursday with some clouds in the sky, though visibility was good. Roughly a dozen other ships either surrounded the site or could be seen in the distance. Thick, tar-like oil with a pungent scent surrounded the boat as far as the eye could see.

The semi-submersible drilling vessel Helix Q4000 was preparing to lift the box from the Joe Griffin with a crane and lower it to the seafloor. That was expected to happen later Thursday afternoon.

Oil has been leaking in three places since the explosion. One small leak was capped Wednesday. The containment box will be lowered over a much bigger leak in a pipe that’s responsible for about 85 percent of the oil that’s coming out.

The rest of the oil is coming from the blowout preventer at the well, a heavy piece of machinery designed to prevent blowouts that failed in the April 20 explosion. Crews have been trying to shut it off using robotic devices, but that hasn’t worked.

If the box being lowered Thursday can contain the bigger leak, a second box being built may be used to stop the smaller leak at the blowout preventer.

The containment box has a dome-like structure at the top that’s designed to act like a funnel and siphon the oil up through 5,000 feet of pipe and onto a tanker at the surface.

First, crews need to properly position the four-story structure with the help of a remote-controlled robotic submarine. A steel pipe will then be attached to a tanker at the surface and connected to the top of the dome to move the oil.

That process presents several challenges because of the frigid water temperature — about 42 degrees Fahrenheit — and exceptionally high pressure at those depths. Those conditions could cause the pipe to clog with what are known in the drilling industry as “ice plugs.” To combat that problem, crews plan to continuously pump warm water and methanol down the pipe to dissolve the clogging.

They are also worried about the volatile cocktail of oil, gas and water when it arrives on the ship above. Engineers believe the liquids can be safely separated without an explosion.

“But of course we haven’t done this before, it’s very complex and we can’t guarantee it,” BP spokesman David Nicholas said Thursday.

Homeland Security Secretary Janet Napolitano said at a briefing in Biloxi, Miss., that officials were planning for the worst even though they hoped the device would work.

“If it does, of course, that will be a major positive development,” she said.

BP engineers are also examining whether the leaking well could be shut off by plugging it from the top instead of drilling a relief well to cap it from the bottom.

The technique — called a top kill — would use a tube to shoot specialized mud and concrete directly into the top of the leaking blowout preventer, BP spokesman Bill Salvin said. The process would take two to three weeks, compared with the two to three months needed to drill a relief well.

No decision has been made on whether to use the technique.

The cause of the rig explosion is still not known, but investigators from multiple federal agencies are looking into the matter. A six-member investigative panel will begin its work next week.

The rig owner, Transocean Ltd., said in a filing with regulators Wednesday that it has received a request from the Justice Department to preserve information about the blast.

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