Oil Spill Reaches Land, Crews Begin Lowering Containment Dome Over Leaking Well

Oil from the Deepwater Horizon oil rig explosion has washed ashore on Louisiana’s Freemason Island, part of the Chandeleur island chain, the U.S. Coast Guard has confirmed. Within the next couple of days, the massive oil spill could reach the coast near Grand Isle, Louisiana, as well as some islands that lay off the coast of Mississippi. The Alabama coast and Florida panhandle could see oil in the next three days.

The Chandeleur Islands are a chain of uninhabited barrier islands that are part of the Breton National Wildlife Refuge. They are an important migrating point for birds and are a prime marsh and forest wildlife area.

Crews are scrambling to place a containment dome over one of three leaks that sits 5,000 feet below the surface of the ocean in the Gulf of Mexico. Though BP, which leased the Deepwater Horizon rig from Transocean LTD., was able to cap one of the leaks earlier this week, that did not slow the flow of oil from the well. As much as 5,000 barrels of oil is gushing from the well everyday, but BP has said it could begin to spew 60,000 barrels a day in a worst-case scenario.

According to an MSNBC report, crews have already begun lowering the dome into the ocean. It is hoped that once it is in place, the dome will trap 85 percent of the oil gushing from the well. The plan is to pump the trapped oil through nearly a mile of pipe up to a tanker ship. If all goes well, a second dome will be used to cap the final leak. Then, crews will have time to finish a relief well they are currently drilling nearby. The relief well will be used to divert oil from the leaks, permanently stopping the flow.

BP projects that if all goes well, the dome will be in place by Sunday.

The process of lowering the dome is risky. If it is not placed exactly right over the leak, it could further damage the pipe. According to the Associated Press, both the frigid water temperature — about 42 degrees Fahrenheit — and exceptionally high pressure at those depths could cause the pipe to clog with what are known in the drilling industry as “ice plugs.” Warm water and methanol will be continuously pumped down the pipe to dissolve any clogging.

The whole operation is one big experiment. Though this type of dome has been used to stop underwater oil leaks, it has been used in shallow water. This is the first time it has ever been used at such depths.

If the box works, a second one now being built may be used to deal with a second, smaller leak from the sea floor.

If the dome doesn’t work, BP says it is working on several other methods for stopping the leak. These include installing a “top kill” device, which would send a heavy liquid into the well to reduce the flow of leaking oil.

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