Emergency workers in the United States have set fire to a small portion of an oil spill that has been leaking crude into the Gulf of Mexico since Friday. Crews are struggling to contain the spill before it reaches coastline as early as Friday.
Boat crews used the burn technique on a small patch of oil in the center of the slick, which officials say is continuing to grow and encroach on U.S. coastline. An airplane survey conducted late Wednesday showed the western edge of the slick is now some 25 kilometers from the Louisiana coastline.
U.S. officials have expressed some frustration that it has proven so difficult to cap the underwater leak, allowing oil to continue spilling into the Gulf of Mexico.
The top official at the clean-up, Coast Guard Rear Admiral Mary Landry says the disaster poses a very difficult challenge. But she says emergency crews are hopeful the spill can be stopped before it is too late.
"You are getting ahead of yourself a little when you try to speculate and say this is catastrophic. It is premature to say this is catastrophic," said Landry. "I will say this is very serious."
The latest technique to control the spill involves work boats which use fire-resistant booms to corral a portion of the oil slick and then tow it to a remote area. Crews then ignite the patch in a controlled manner, and allow the oil to burn off, leaving a less toxic residue in the water.
Officials say crews performed the technique on one patch, and hope to study whether it will be useful in this incident. Charlie Henry, a science coordinator with the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration, says the method has shown promise in other recent spills.
"But it's new for us, getting it and utilizing it on a spill. It is going to take a little time to develop," he said.
Crews say the oil slick is at least 160 kilometers long, and may reach the Louisiana coastline by late Friday. Officials say it is unlikely that emergency efforts will stop the slick from reaching shore, and say they are preparing additional measures in response to likely environmental damage.
One of the key goals of emergency crews is to stop the flow of oil from a broken pipe that was connected to the rig. Doug Suttles is chief operating officer for British Petroleum, which had leased the damaged oil rig.
"We are focusing in on using multiple techniques to stop that flow because we don't know which one will actually work," he said.
Current methods involve submarines which are trying to turn off an underwater valve. Another method is to siphon the oil into a tanker ship, but officials say it could take weeks before the equipment is ready.