Crews are working today to lower a 100-ton, 40-foot steel box over the main leak in a well 5,000 feet below the Gulf of Mexico that has been gushing oil since the April 20 explosion of the Deepwater Horizon oil rig 50 miles offshore. The oil rig explosion killed 11 oil rig workers and blew open the well. Oil-giant BP, the owner of the rig, is working frantically on several methods to plug the leaks and stop or collect oil that has reached the surface before most of it reaches the coastline. About 200,000 gallons of oil have been gushing out of the open well every day.
A giant oil slick has gathered on the Gulf and residents of Louisiana, Mississippi, Alabama, and Florida are nervously waiting to see when and where the oil will come ashore. Satellite images have shown that the oil is moving west around the Mississippi Delta. The main oil slick is shifting to the northwest and seems to be approaching the Chandeleur Sound, the Chandeleur Islands, and the Mississippi Delta wetlands. The oil has already reached several barrier islands off the Louisiana coast, which hold many fragile animal habitats.
Engineers hope the steel box will effectively cover the main leak and, thereby, collect up to 85 percent of the leaking oil, which will then be funneled up to a tanker. There are several risks involved in this effort. First, a steel box like this has never been used so far below the surface, where the water pressure is so great it would crush a sub. The box also has to be perfectly positioned over the pipes, so as not to damage them further. Undersea robots have been working to clear debris around the area and to mark the target with buoys. There is also the danger of ice clogs in the pipes. Crews are pumping warm water and methanol to try to prevent ice buildup. There is also a risk of explosion when the mixed oil, gas and water separate when they are brought to the surface.
The current crises has earned the infamous distinction of the biggest oil spill since the Exxon Valdez disaster in Alaska in 1989. Recently, a federal judicial panel in Washington has been asked to consolidate 65 potential class-action lawsuits that claim economic damage as a result of the oil spill. The lawsuits have been brought by commercial fishermen, business and resort owners, and charter boat captains who are worried the environmental disaster will devastate livelihoods dependant on fishing or tourism.