BP has finally reported some success in containing the leaking Deepwater Horizon oil well in the Gulf of Mexico. Unfortunately, it appears that much damage to the fragile ecosystem has already been done, and will likely continue for years to come.
According to The New York Times, on Sunday BP was able to insert a narrow tube into the damaged pipe sitting 5,000 feet below the ocean surface from which most of the oil is leaking. The mile-long pipe is now capturing some of the oil, and diverting it to a drill ship on the surface.
According to a Reuters report, only about a fifth of the oil coming from the well is being captured by the tube. At any rate, the tube is just a temporary fix. BP is now preparing to permanently staunch the leak with something called a “top kill”. The procedure involves pumping heavy drilling mud into the well through the blowout preventer.
According to The New York Times, the mud would be used to overcome the pressure of the rising oil, stopping the flow. The mud would be followed by cement, which would permanently seal the well. BP said it was about 10 days away from trying the top kill.
Unfortunately this seemingly good news was overshadowed this weekend by fears that the oil spill could be worse than previously thought. While favorable weather conditions have kept much of the oil offshore, away from beaches and delicate wetlands, conditions may not appear as good as they seem. Over the weekend, The New York Times reported that scientists aboard the research vessel Pelican had discovered giant plumes of oil deep in the Gulf of Mexico. One of these plumes was as large as 10 miles long, 3 miles wide and 300 feet thick. The scientists said the plumes were evidence that the leak was substantially worse than estimates that the government and BP have given.
Samantha Joye, a researcher at the University of Georgia who was involved in the discovery of the plumes, told the Times that there is “a shocking amount of oil in the deep water, relative to what you see in the surface water.” Joye said the oil was located in multiple layers, three or four or five layers deep in the water column. The plumes are depleting the oxygen dissolved in the gulf, and if oxygen levels fall too low, sea life near the plumes could be killed off.
Both BP and the government have relied on satellite images of the oil slick to measure the spill, and have maintained that the well is leaking 5,000 barrels – about 210,000 gallons – of oil into the gulf every day. But scientists from the Pelican mission told the Times they fear the true amount could be closer to 25,000 to 80,000 barrels of oil a day.
BP has not allowed scientists to use sophisticated instruments at the ocean floor that would more accurately measure the spill, the Times said.