PORT FOURCHON, La. – A 100-ton box designed to help funnel out oil spewing from the bottom of the Gulf of Mexico is headed to the leak site about 50 miles (80 kilometres) off the Louisiana coast.
The giant-concrete-and-steel box is the best short-term solution to bottling up the disastrous oil spill that threatens sealife and livelihoods along the Gulf Coast.
BP PLC chief operating office Doug Suttles said it would take about two days to put it precisely on the seafloor.
“It is very complex and we’ll likely have challenges along the way,” he said.
The pipes and tubing were to be hooked to a ship over the weekend, and if successful, the oil would eventually be brought to shore.
The boat, a 280-foot (85-meter) vessel named the Joe Griffin, was expected to start its 100-mile (160-kilometre) trip around the Mississippi Delta later Wednesday.
The box is the latest idea engineers from oil giant BP PLC are trying after an oil rig the company was operating exploded April 20, killing 11 workers. It sank two days later.
Coast Guard Rear Adm. Mary Landry cautioned about high expections for the containment system.
“So, please, I have to manage your expectations and just understand that our job is not done until this well is sealed, until this well is cemented, our job is not done ’til then,” she said.
She also said fires had been lit where the oil is heaviest, near the area of the accident.
Crews last set fire to surface oil on April 28. A 28-minute burn then removed thousands of gallons (litres) from threatening the coast, but weather had not allowed them to do it again. Waves and wind were calm Wednesday.
BP capped one of three leaks at the well Tuesday night, a step that will not cut the flow of oil but that BP has said will make it easier to help with the gusher. BP was operator of the rig, which was owned by Transocean Ltd.
Two satellite images taken Wednesday morning indicate oil has reached the Mississippi Delta and the Chandeleur Islands off the coast of Louisiana.
It’s not clear whether the oil is on shore, but it’s very close, said Hans Graber, director of the University of Miami’s satellite sensing facility.
U.S. Coast Guard Lt. James McKnight said crews remained at the Chandeleurs on Wednesday after officials got a report of oil coming ashore, but they have not located it.
“They’re sitting there, basically, waiting for the first signs of any kind of a sheen to touch the islands,” he said.
Graber said the images also show oil drifting south, toward the Loop Current, which scientists say could carry it toward Florida and the Florida Keys. The northern edge of the current may have already picked up some oil.
Florida officials fearing tourists will cancel their vacations are trying to quash rumours that oil is already washing up on beaches there.
“We are not two or three days away from it hitting the shore,” said David Halstead, Florida’s emergency management chief. “The beaches are still open.”
The Coast Guard said officials planned to send out about 80 vessels from Biloxi and Pascagoula, Mississippi, and Orange Beach, Alabama, primarily to handle booming.
Two Coast Guard cutters would also conduct offshore skimming operations. Crews in Mississippi are picking up debris from beaches to make cleanup easier if oil comes ashore.
In all, about 7,900 people are working to protect the shoreline and wildlife, and some 170 boats are also helping with the cleanup.
Containment boxes have never been tried at this depth — about 5,000 feet (1,524 metres) — because of the extreme water pressure. If all goes well, the contraption could be fired up early next week to start funneling the oil into a tanker.
“We don’t know for sure” whether the equipment will work, BP spokesman Bill Salvin said. “What we do know is that we have done extensive engineering and modeling and we believe this gives us the best chance to contain the oil, and that’s very important to us.”
Associated Press writers Allen G. Breed and Kevin McGill in New Orleans, Vicki Smith in Grand Isle, La., Ray Henry in Robert, La., Sarah Larimer in Mobile, Ala., Jennifer N. Kay in Fort Walton Beach, Fla., Bill Kaczor in Perdido Key, Fla., Holbrook Mohr in Venice, La., Malcolm Ritter in New York and Cain Burdeau who flew over the site contributed to this report.