THIS STORY HAS BEEN FORMATTED FOR EASY PRINTING

Cleanup crews try fire to stop oil from spreading in Gulf

Leak from rig explosion could not be stopped

By Cain Burdeau and Brett Martel
Associated Press / April 29, 2010

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OVER THE GULF OF MEXICO — It’s a hellish scene: Giant sheets of flame racing across the Gulf of Mexico as thick, black smoke billows high into sky.

This, though, is no Hollywood action movie. It’s the real-life plan to be deployed just 20 miles from the Gulf Coast in a last-ditch effort to burn up an oil spill before it could wash ashore and wreak environmental havoc.

The Coast Guard late yesterday afternoon started a test burn of an area about 30 miles east of the delta of the Mississippi River to see how the technique was working. Crews planned to use hand-held flares to set fire to sections of the massive spill.

Crews turned to the plan after failing to stop a 1,000-barrel-a-day leak at the spot where a deepwater oil platform exploded and sank.

A 500-foot boom was to be used to corral several thousand gallons of the thickest oil on the surface, which will then be towed to a more remote area, set on fire, and allowed to burn for about an hour.

If the hourlong test burn was successful, rig operator BP PLC was expected to continue the oil fires as long as the weather cooperated. The burns were not expected to be done at night.

About 42,000 gallons of oil a day are leaking into the Gulf from the blown-out well drilled by the Deepwater Horizon oil rig. Eleven workers are missing and presumed dead. The cause of the explosion has not been determined.

Greg Pollock, head of the oil spill division of the Texas General Land Office, which is providing equipment for crews in the Gulf, said he is not aware of a similar burn ever being done off the US coast. The last time crews with his agency used fire booms to burn oil was a 1995 spill on the San Jacinto River.

“When you can get oil ignited, it is an absolutely effective way of getting rid of a huge percentage of the oil,’’ he said. “I can’t overstate how important it is to get the oil off the surface of the water.’’

The oil has the consistency of thick roofing tar.

When the flames go out, Pollock said, the material that is left resembles a hardened ball of tar that can be removed from the water with nets or skimmers.

“I would say there is little threat to the environment because it won’t coat an animal, and because all the volatiles have been consumed if it gets on a shore it can be simply picked up,’’ he said.

Authorities also said they expect minimal impact on sea turtles and marine mammals in the burn area.

A graphic posted by the Coast Guard and the industry task force fighting the slick showed it covering an area about 100 miles long and 45 miles across at its widest point.

“It’s premature to say this is catastrophic. I will say this is very serious,’’ said Coast Guard Rear Admiral Mary Landry.

Earlier yesterday, Louisiana State Wildlife and Fisheries Secretary Robert Barham told lawmakers that federal government projections show a “high probability’’ oil could reach the Pass a Loutre wildlife area tomorrow night, Breton Sound on Saturday, and the Chandeleur Islands on Sunday.

As the task force worked far offshore, local officials prepared for the worst in case the oil reaches land.

The decision to burn some of the oil came after crews operating submersible robots failed to activate a shut-off device that would halt the flow of oil on the sea bottom 5,000 feet below.

BP says work will begin as early as today to drill a relief well to relieve pressure at the blowout site, but that could take months.