Stennis International Airport is playing a key role in fighting a Gulf of Mexico oil spill that threatens coastal beaches and resulted from the sinking of the Deepwater Horizon drilling rig off the coast of Louisiana April 22.
So far, the sunken rig has been gushing 42,000 gallons of crude oil per day into the Gulf, posing severe threats to beaches, birds, and vegetation.
The Coast Guard said oil from the leakage that is trapped in containment booms may be set on fire as early as today, to try and contain the disaster.
Marine Spill Response Corp., which maintains one smaller aircraft at Stennis Airport full time, has also brought in two mammoth Lockheed planes, civilian versions of the military C-130, to drop a spill dispersant miles out in the Gulf.
“When they leave Stennis Airport and go into the Gulf, they’re ready to fight,” said airport Manager Bill Cotter. He said the two MSR planes were brought in from Arizona and Alaska, and the first arrived last Saturday.
Early Tuesday, officials said an oil slick resulting from the incident was about 30 miles from the coast of Venice, La. Pilots flying over the scene reported seeing a rainbow sheen of emulsified crude oil 600 miles in circumference, according to news reports.
Communities along the Mississippi, Alabama and Florida coasts have been preparing for the possibility that remnants of the spill may wash ashore on Gulf mainland and barrier island beaches.
Five staging areas have been prepared to protect the shoreline. They are located in Biloxi, Pascagoula, Venice, La., Theodore, Ala., and Pensacola.
Tuesday afternoon, officials announced a plan to drill a relief well to stop the leakage, but that could take up to three months. Other actions to activate a shutoff valve on the leak by using robotic submarines have failed thus far.
Marine Spill Response is a company that joins with government agencies to clean up oil spills in emergency situations. The company also keeps a twin-engine Beechcraft King Air plane at Stennis Airport on a permanent basis.
This week, the smaller plane is spotting the spill from the air and coordinating the two larger planes, Cotter said. The Lockheeds are dumping a soap-based dispersant on the oily waters, which helps break up the oil.
Each plane carries 3,000 gallons of the dispersant, and both are making three or four trips a day from Stennis into the Gulf, Cotter said. As of Tuesday morning, 29,140 gallons of the dispersant had been laid, and more than 119,000 gallons were still available, according to a Web site that has been updating response to the Deepwater Horizon crisis.
There were 126 people on the rig when the explosion occurred. Seventeen were injured, three of them critically. Another 11 remain unaccounted for and are presumed dead.
The rupture is about 5,000 feet below the surface.
The rig sank 130 miles southeast of New Orleans. Cotter said that because sea conditions have been rough at the scene, the C-130s have been extremely valuable in the containment effort.
“From what I understand, what these guys are doing is the most effective thing happening right now to contain the spill,” he said.
The Deepwater Horizon was owned by Transocean Ltd. and operated by BP PLC.
Tuesday, BP Group Chief Executive Tony Hayward said in a statement that conditions were improving in the Gulf.
“This, combined with the light, thin oil we are dealing with, has further increased our confidence that we can tackle this spill offshore,” he said.
On Tuesday, winds were from the northwest and Gulf seas were choppy, with waves four feet high, according to the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration. More than 29,000 feet of barrier boom has been assigned to contain the oil spill.
As of Tuesday, response teams on the surface had recovered barrels containing 43,384 gallons of an oil and water mix. Officials at BP said they plan to collect leaking oil from the floor of the Gulf by placing a large dome, capturing the oil, then using hoses and pipes and pumping the oil to vessels on the surface.
However, they said, it could take months to put that equipment in place.
BY: J.R. Welsh
The Sea Coast Echo