Engineers for BP oil company are working to position an oil containment dome on top of a broken well in the Gulf of Mexico to stop a three-week-old leak. Experts are hopeful, but say the technique has never been tried before on a deepwater spill.
Engineers on Friday began lowering the containment dome into the Gulf of Mexico, where submersible robots are helping to position it over the leaking well. BP officials hope the massive concrete and steel structure will provide a temporary fix for the leak, which has been pouring an estimated 5,000 barrels of oil a day into the gulf. A more permanent fix, which involves drilling a new well, is also underway.
BP's chief operating officer, Doug Suttles, says it is a delicate job to place the dome without causing new damage to the well site. "They have lowered it just to the side of where the leak is, and they will be swinging it over. They have to precisely lower it over the leak point because the tolerances are quite tight," he said.
Once the dome is in place, crews plan to attach a pipe and funnel oil into a tanker ship on the water's surface.
Experts say containment domes have been used before to cap undersea oil leaks, but never on a well that is one and a half kilometers under water. The well was connected to the Deepwater Horizon oil rig, which caught fire and sank three weeks ago, killing 11 workers.
Meanwhile, clean-up work continues across the Gulf of Mexico. Emergency crews are skimming oil in areas of heavy concentration as well as burning oil on the surface of the water.
BP's Suttles says the burns have proven very useful at minimizing the environmental damage from the oil. "We estimate that we burned between 7,000 to 9,000 barrels of oil. This is quite substantial and we have demonstrated this is a very powerful technique and when the weather is good it will continue, which we expect for the next two days," he said.
U.S. officials have extended a temporary ban on fishing, as they track the oil spill and its impact on wildlife. They say the ban covers less than five percent of U.S. federal waters in the gulf, but scores of fishermen say it has put them out of work.
Emergency crews have confirmed that oil has washed ashore in two areas along the Louisiana coast. Wildlife officials say one spot is the Breton National Wildlife Refuge, which is home to brown pelicans and several other bird species.