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Apr 23, 2010 9:10 AM by Katie Durio

Oil Spill Fears After Oil Rig Explosion

NEW ORLEANS (AP) - As the Coast Guard searched for 11 crew
members missing after a drilling rig exploded and sank in the Gulf
of Mexico, authorities turned their focus to controlling an oil
spill that could threaten the fragile ecosystem of the Louisiana
and Mississippi coasts.
      The Deepwater Horizon had burned violently for nearly two days
until it sank Thursday morning. The fire's out, and officials had
initially feared as much as 336,000 gallons of crude oil a day
could be rising from the sea floor 5,000 feet below.
      Coast Guard Rear Adm. Mary Landry said Friday morning that no
oil appeared to be leaking from the well head at the ocean floor,
nor was any leaking at the water's surface. However, Landry said
crews were closely monitoring the rig for any more crude that might
spill out.
      The oil currently being contained was residual from the
explosion and sinking.
      "If it gets landward, it could be a disaster in the making,"
said Cynthia Sarthou, executive director for the environmental
group Gulf Restoration Network.
      BP PLC, which leased the rig and took the lead in the cleanup,
said Friday it has "activated an extensive oil spill response,"
including using remotely operated vehicles to assess the subsea
well and 32 vessels to mop up the spill.
      BP Chief Executive Tony Hayward said the company will do
"everything in our power to contain this oil spill and resolve the
situation as rapidly, safely and effectively as possible." He says
the company can call on more resources if needed.
      Ed Overton, an LSU environmental sciences professor, said he
expects some of the light crude oil to evaporate while much of it
turns into a pasty mess called a "chocolate mousse" that
ultimately breaks apart into "tar balls," small chunks of oily
residue that can wash ashore.
      "It's going to be a god-awful mess for a while," he said.
"I'm not crying doomsday or saying the sky is falling, but that is
the potential."
      The Coast Guard early Friday was searching for the missing, but
some family members said they had been told that officials assumed
all were dead. Most of the crew - 111 members - were ashore,
including 17 taken to hospitals. Four were in critical condition.
      The accident shows that drilling is not safe, said Abe Powell,
who heads Get Oil Out!, created after a 1969 platform accident off
Santa Barbara, Calif., fouled miles of ocean and beaches with
wildlife-killing goo and spawned the environmental movement.
      "When oil companies say drilling is safe now and we won't allow
any accidents ... we know that's not true," he said.
      Weather forecasts indicate the spill was likely to stay well
away from shore at least through the weekend, but if winds change
it could come ashore more rapidly, said Doug Helton of the National
Oceanographic and Atmospheric Administration's office of response
and restoration.
      The Coast Guard, which was leading the investigation, hadn't
given up the search early Friday for those missing from the rig,
which went up in flames Tuesday night about 41 miles from the mouth
of the Mississippi River.
      Four who made it off safely were still on a boat operating one
of several underwater robots being used to assess whether the flow
of oil could be shut off at a control valve on the sea floor, said
Guy Cantwell, spokesman for rig owner Transocean Ltd.
      Landry said crews saw a 1-mile-by-5-mile rainbow sheen of what
appeared to be a crude oil mix on the surface. There wasn't any
evidence crude was coming out after the rig sank, she said, but
officials weren't sure what was going on underwater.
      At the worst-case figure of 336,000 gallons a day, it would take
more than a month for the amount of crude oil spilled to equal the
11 million gallons spilled from the Exxon Valdez in Alaska's Prince
William Sound.
      A turn in winds and currents might send oil toward fragile
coastal wetlands - nurseries for fish and shrimp and habitat for
birds.
      "As you get closer to shore, you get richer and richer marine
habitats, and also get the potential for long-term exposure,"
Helton said.
      Animals at sea will be briefly exposed to the oil when the slick
passes over, but when it hits land, it sticks, he said.
      To prevent that, the Marine Spill Response Corp., an energy
industry cleanup consortium, brought seven skimmer boats to suck
oily water from the surface, four planes that can scatter chemicals
to disperse oil, and 500,000 feet - 94.6 miles - of containment
boom, a floating barrier with a skirt that drapes down under the
water and corrals the oil.
      Another 500,000 feet of boom were on the way, said BP spokesman
Tom Mueller.
      "Right now we are over-responding with resources to manage the
potential spill here," he said. "We will be well-prepared to
manage whatever comes."
      He said 6,000 feet, about 1.1 mile, of boom was in the water by
Thursday evening.
      While this was happening on the surface, robots tethered to
ships nearly a mile above the sea floor sent back video of the
damage so crews can decide whether a shutoff valve called a blowout
preventer can be closed.
      Authorities don't know whether the rig sank to the bottom - or,
if it did, whether it hit the blowout preventer, Lt. Cdr. Cheri
Ben-Iesau said.
      "It didn't sink catastrophically. It kind of settled into the
water" and may still have some buoyancy, she said.
      If the valve is too badly damaged to cut off the flow of oil, a
nearby rig a safe distance from the broken well will drill a new
hole intersecting the one that blew wild. Then heavy fluid called
"kill fluid" will be pumped in to plug it, said Scott D. Dean, a
BP spokesman.
      In addition to other environmental concerns, the well is in an
area where a pod of sperm whales is known to feed, said Kim
Amendola of NOAA. Sarthou said she was worried the activity around
the well might disturb the whales.
      Meanwhile, relatives of the missing waited for news.
      Carolyn Kemp of Monterey, La., said her grandson, Roy Wyatt
Kemp, 27, would have been on the drilling platform when it
exploded.
      "They're assuming all those men who were on the platform are
dead," Kemp said. "That's the last we've heard."
      Jed Kersey, of Leesville, La., said his 33-year-old son, John,
had finished his shift on the rig floor and was sleeping. He said
his son told him all 11 missing workers were on the rig floor at
the time of the explosion.
      "He said it was like a war zone," said Jed Kersey, a former
offshore oil worker.
      The family of Dewey Revette, a 48-year-old from southeast
Mississippi, said he worked as a driller on the rig and had been
with the company for 29 years.
      "We're all just sitting around waiting for the phone to ring
and hoping for good news. And praying about it," said Revette's
23-year-old daughter, Andrea Cochran.
      Those who escaped did so mainly by getting on lifeboats that
were lowered into the Gulf, said Adrian Rose, vice president of
Transocean.
      Weekly emergency drills seemed to help, he said, adding that
workers apparently stuck together as they fled the blast.
      "There are a number of uncorroborated stories, a lot of them
really quite heroic stories, of how people looked after each other.
There was very little panic," Rose said.
      Family members of two missing workers filed separate lawsuits
Thursday accusing Transocean and BP of negligence. Both companies
declined to comment about legal action against them after the first
suit was filed.
      The U.S. Minerals Management Service, which regulates oil rigs,
conducted three routine inspections of the Deepwater Horizon this
year - in February, March and on April 1 - and found no violations,
MMS spokeswoman Eileen Angelico said.
      ---
      Associated Press Writer Noaki Schwartz reported from Los
Angeles, Holbrook Mohr from Jackson, Miss., Mike Kunzelman, Cain
Burdeau and Alan Sayre in Louisiana, Chris Kahn in New York and
Sofia Mannos of AP Television News contributed to this report.

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