Gulf Oil Spill to be Set Afire, Oil Rig Operators Face Federal Investigations

The U.S. Coast Guard is going to set fire to part of the massive oil spill that is threatening the Louisiana Gulf Coast. The spill, which was the result of last week’s explosion at the Deepwater Horizon offshore oil rig, is now within 20 miles of Venice, Louisiana. It covers an area as wide as 42 miles across, and up to 80 miles in length.

BP, which was leasing Deepwater Horizon from TransOcean LTD, has not had any luck using remote control vehicles to seal the damaged underwater oil well, which is pouring 42,000 gallons of crude oil into the Gulf of Mexico every day. BP is preparing to drill relief wells in an attempt to channel the flow of oil into the existing well and permanently stop the leaking. But that process could take months. Crews have also started building a dome that could temporarily contain the spill, but it will be at least two weeks before the structure can be put in place.

According to the U.S. Coast Guard, if the leaking well is not contained soon, the oil spill could become one of the worst in U.S. history. The Deepwater Horizon explosion already ranks as the deadliest offshore rig accident in the U.S. since 1968, as 11 men missing since last Tuesday’s blast are now presumed dead.

Starting at about 11:00 CST today, the Coast Guard will set a portion of the slick on fire to try to halt its movement towards the Louisiana coast. According to a CNN report, it will use a 500-foot-long, flame-retardant boom to gather some of the oil and then burn only the crude inside its perimeter. The Coast Guard said slicks are sometimes set on fire, especially when they are near sensitive marsh areas where heavy equipment used to clean the spill may cause more harm than good.

Meanwhile, the catastrophe has raised question about the safety procedures and environmental response plans put in place by both BP and TransOcean. Now, members of Congress are demanding answers from the companies and federal officials have launched a full investigation of the incident.

The U.S. House of Representatives Committee on Energy and Commerce and its subcommittee on oversight and investigations has written to both BP and TransOcean seeking documents related to safety procedures at Deepwater Horizon. The letters to both firms accuse them of attempting to stop the spread of the oil from the well with untested techniques.

“A striking feature of the incident is the apparent lack of an adequate plan to contain the spreading environmental damage,” the letters said.

Both companies have until May 4 to comply with the request on a voluntary basis.

Homeland Security Secretary Janet Napolitano and Energy Secretary Ken Salazar also announced a joint investigation into the incident. The agencies, which have subpoena power, will probe possible criminal or civil violations by BP and TransOcean.

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