By The Associated Press
ON THE GULF OF MEXICO – Icelike crystals encrusting a 100-ton steel-and-concrete box meant to contain oil gushing from a broken well deep in the Gulf of Mexico forced crews Saturday to back off the long-shot plan, while more than 100 miles away, blobs of tar washed up at an Alabama beach full of swimmers.
The failure in the first attempt to use the specially constructed containment box over the leak 50 miles off the Louisiana coast, coupled with the ominous arrival of the sticky substance at Dauphin Island, Ala., crushed hopes of a short-term solution to what could yet grow into the worst oil spill in the nation’s history.
More than 3 million gallons of crude have spewed into the Gulf since a rig exploded April 20, killing 11, and officials said it would be at least Monday before a different solution is found.
Authorities in protective gear descended on the public beach on Dauphin Island, three miles off the Alabama mainland at the mouth of Mobile Bay and much farther east than oil had been reported.
About a half dozen tar balls had been collected by Saturday afternoon at Dauphin Island, Coast Guard chief warrant officer Adam Wine said in Mobile. Authorities planned to test the substance but strongly suspected it came from the oil spill.
The containment box, a method never before attempted at such depths, had been considered the best hope of stanching the flow in the near term.
“I wouldn’t say it’s failed yet,” BP chief operating officer Doug Suttles said. “What I would say is what we attempted to do last night didn’t work.”
The icy buildup on the containment box made it too buoyant and clogged it up, Suttles said. Workers who had carefully lowered the massive box over the leak nearly a mile below the surface had to lift it and move it some 600 feet to the side.
Company and Coast Guard officials had cautioned that icelike hydrates, a slushy mixture of gas and water, would be one of the biggest challenges to the containment box plan, and their warnings proved accurate. The crystals clogged the opening in the top of the peaked box like sand in a funnel, only upside-down.
Options under consideration included raising the box high enough that warmer water would prevent the slush from forming, or using heated water or methanol to prevent the crystals from forming.