The Big Spill: Doom for the Dome — and the Shrimp?

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Mark Ralston / AFP / Getty Images

The Pollution Control Dome leaves Port Fourchon onboard an oil workboat on May 5, 2010

Murphy's Law — "anything that can go wrong will go wrong" — seems to be the operative rule in the Gulf of Mexico oil spill. Toward the end of last week, BP, the oil giant whose ill-fated leased rig precipitated the catastrophe, lowered a 78-ton dome thousands of feet beneath the sea to contain the leaking oil. The hope was that it would siphon off 125,000 bbl. a day. Late Saturday afternoon, May 8, however, company officials said the dome wasn't working. Hydrates — slushlike ice crystals that appear when gas mixes with water — had formed at the top of the dome, effectively preventing the oil from rising to the surface. BP is now considering a range of other options to contain the spill, including deploying oil-eating bacteria and stuffing the leaking wells with rubber and other materials. "We don't want to do anything that will make the situation worse," says BP chief operating officer Doug Suttles.

But some experts are worried that dispersants used to degrade the spill may prove to be more toxic to sea life than the oil itself. One of the most stunning admissions at Saturday's press conference came when the top Coast Guard official handling the crisis, Rear Admiral Mary Landry, was asked if the dispersants are safe. She responded, "I don't think any of us know what the impact will be on the environment or the economic issues associated with this spill." Then she added that officials continue to examine "the particular amounts [of dispersants] being used and the trade-offs associated with using dispersants, as opposed to allowing it to come ashore." BP insists it is using a "biodegradable surface-washing agent" that has been approved by the Environmental Protection Agency. Government and BP officials have declined to specify the type of dispersants being used in the Gulf.

Meanwhile, oil has appeared on islands off the coasts of Louisiana and Mississippi, and late Saturday, officials reported that tar the size of golf balls had been recovered from the beaches of Dauphin Island, Ala., south of Mobile. The oil is not black but has morphed into emulsified orange, red and brown globs, often with the consistency of mousse — partly, experts say, because of extended exposure to air. Experts also attribute the emulsification to the estimated 290,000 gal. (roughly 1 million L) of dispersant sprayed onto, or injected into, the water.

As for the dome solution, "I wouldn't say it's failed yet," said Suttles on Saturday evening. "What I would say is, what we attempted to do last night wasn't successful." The four-story structure had been one of the most ballyhooed tactics to contain the oil spill, which began with the April 20 explosion of the transoceanic oil rig the Deepwater Horizon, under lease by BP. The dome has been moved 656 ft. (200 m) away from the leak's source and remains on the sea floor, Suttles said. BP is exploring what it will take to salvage the dome — the first of three expected to be put in place to handle the three known leaks. One method may be injecting warm water around a pipe inside the dome to keep oil moving to the surface. Methanol injections may help limit the formation of ice crystals. "It's very difficult to predict whether we'll find solutions," Suttles said. "We're looking at every option."

The containment process has focused on several fronts. The first is plugging the leaks thousands of feet below the surface. The second is containing the spread of oil, which now stretches from Louisiana to Florida. (BP officials say some 2.1 million gal. of "oil-water mix" have been collected. Only about 10% of the material skimmed off the water's surface has been oil.) And the third is minimizing the oil's damage to land, hence the attempts to disperse the oil.

However, conservationists are extremely wary of the chemical dispersants. "The oil is toxic, and when you combine the chemical dispersant, the combined toxicity is actually greater than either one in isolation. You're pushing this stuff down into the water and exposing the ecosystem to even more pollution," says Richard Steiner, a retired University of Alaska marine-conservation professor who is monitoring the spill's effects in Louisiana. Much of the fish and shrimp spawning in the sea, Steiner predicts, will be affected. "You will have acute mortality of marine organisms beneath the sea surface" — with severe repercussions on the food cycle in the Gulf.