Underwater robots maneuvered a mammoth white containment dome over a leaking oil well 5,000 feet below the surface of the Gulf of Mexico on Friday as environmentalists, fishermen and hoteliers waited to see if the unprecedented effort would contain this region’s 17-day-long ecological disaster.
Engineers hoped to thread a slot in the dome over the well’s main leaking pipe, then let the dome sink into the mud, creating a water-tight seal. After that, engineers planned to hook a pipeline to it and pump the oil it collects into a waiting barge.
If it works as designed, engineers say the dome, really a 78-ton box with a pyramid on the top, should collect about 85 percent of the estimated 210,000 gallons spewing daily from the well
However, many things could go wrong.
“This hasn’t been done before and it will undoubtedly have some complications but we are committed to making this work,” said Doug Suttles, the chief operating officer of British Petroleum, the London-based company that owns the leaking well.
The most daunting part of the process will entail pumping warm water down the hose to keep the oil fluid in the chilly seawater, Suttles said. At that depth and pressure, ice crystals can form that make it harder to pump.
Coast Guard Commander Thad Allen, who’s leading the federal response to the spill, said the process is “more like Apollo 13 than the Exxon Valdez.”
“Probably the most significant thing about it is it’s happening 5,000 feet down,” Allen said. “We’re captives to the tyranny of what I call distant depth, and there is no human access to the site of the spill.”
Suttles said Friday that the company had “exhausted” its efforts during the past two weeks to use the existing blowout preventer to stop the leak. However, he said a team of 20 experts from across the globe are still trying to come up with a way to inject materials to clog the contraption, “like plugging up a toilet.”