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May 6, 2010 11:40 AM by Letitia Walker

Thursday Morning Update: Oil Cleanup

ON THE GULF OF MEXICO (AP) - It's never been tried before, but

crews hope to lower a 100-ton concrete-and-steel box a mile under

the Gulf of Mexico on Thursday to cut off most of the hundreds of

thousands of gallons of oil spewing from a blown-out well.

If it works, the system could collect as much as 85 percent of

the oil that's been leaking from the ocean floor after the

Deepwater Horizon rig exploded April 20, killing 11 workers.

"We're even more anxious," the Joe Griffin's first mate,

Douglas Peake, told The Associated Press aboard the boat. The AP is

the only news organization with access to the containment effort.

"Hopefully, it will work better than they expect."

It won't solve the problem altogether. Crews are drilling a

relief well to take the pressure off the blown-out well at the

site, and that could take up to three months. Other possible

solutions are also in the works.

More than 200,000 gallons of oil a day is pouring from the well,

creating a massive sheen that's been floating on the Gulf for more

than two weeks. As it moved closer to land, crews were frantically

laying boom and taking other steps to prevent it from oozing into

delicate coastal wetlands.

At sea, some boats were using skimmers to suck up oil while

others were corralling and setting fire to it to burn it off the

surface.

The Joe Griffin, the ship carrying the containment box that will

be lowered to the seafloor, arrived Thursday morning at the leak

site about 50 miles offshore.

Workers hope to have the device down at the seabed by Thursday

evening, but it will likely be Sunday or Monday before it's fully

operational and they know if it's working.

The crew won't have to worry about dealing with the wreckage of

the Deepwater Horizon, which sank two days after the explosion.

It's not anywhere near where they're working.

The waters were calm Thursday with some clouds in the sky,

though visibility was good. Roughly a dozen other ships either

surrounded the site or could be seen in the distance. Thick,

tar-like oil with a pungent scent surrounded the boat as far as the

eye could see.

The Coast Guard was keeping boats not involved in the effort out

of 25-mile perimter around the site.

A 20-foot pleasure boat that invaded the strict perimeter

Thursday and pulled up right in the middle of the oil spill near

the boat drilling the relief well was told to leave the area by a

Coast Guard boat. It quickly turned around and left.

Another BP-chartered boat will use a crane to lower the box -

something that has never been tried before at such depths. BP

spokesman Bill Salvin said the drop is expected at about noon

Thursday.

Oil has been leaking in three places since the explosion. One

small leak was capped Wednesday. The containment box will be

lowered over a much bigger leak in a pipe that's responsible for

about 85 percent of the oil that's coming out.

The rest of the oil is coming from the blowout preventer at the

well, a heavy piece of machinery designed to prevent blowouts that

failed in the April 20 explosion. Crews have been trying to shut it

off using robotic devices, but that hasn't worked.

If the box being lowered Thursday is successful in containing

the bigger leak, a second box being built may be used to stop the

smaller leak at the blowout preventer.

The containment box has a dome-like structure at the top that's

designed to act like a funnel and siphon the oil up through 5,000

feet of pipe and onto a tanker at the surface.

First, crews need to properly position the four-story structure

with the help of a remote-controlled robotic submarine. A steel

pipe will then be attached to a tanker at the surface and connected

to the top of the dome to move the oil.

That process presents several challenges because of the frigid

water temperature - about 42 degrees Fahrenheit - and exceptionally

high pressure at those depths. Those conditions could cause the

pipe to clog with what are known in the drilling industry as "ice

plugs." To combat that problem, crews plan to continuously pump

warm water and methanol down the pipe to dissolve the clogging.

They are also worried about volatile cocktail of oil, gas and

water when it arrives on the ship above. Engineers believe the

liquids can be safely separated without an explosion.

Asked to handicap the odds of success, Bob Fryar, a senior

executive vice president for BP's Deep Water Angola, offered up

this assessment: "This has never been done before. Typically you

would put odds on something that has been done before."

Fryar also said BP is exploring a technique in which crews would

reconfigure the well that would allow them to plug the leak, but

that effort is a couple weeks off.

The cause of the rig explosion is still not known, but

investigators from multiple federal agencies are looking into the

matter. The rig owner, Transocean Ltd., said in a filing with

regulators Wednesday that it has received a request from the

Justice Department to preserve information about the blast.

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