BILOXI, Miss. — Weather forecasters warned Wednesday that shifting winds could drive a massive oil spill across islands off the Louisiana coast on Friday even as BP officials announced that they'd succeeded in shutting off one of three leaks spewing crude into the Gulf of Mexico.
Coast Guard officials said they'd taken full advantage of the weather's lull to set fire to some of the drifting oil, and BP officials said they would begin on Thursday wrestling a 125-ton dome into place that they believe is the best hope of stopping the oil's hemorrhage from the larger of the two remaining leaks.
The push and pull of both good and bad news kept emergency managers from Texas to Florida working madly to head off the worst effects of the unfolding environmental disaster, triggered by the April 20 explosion of the Deepwater Horizon oil rig and its sinking two days later. Eleven oil workers died.
The oil has not yet hit shore, but winds that had died down Wednesday were expected to pick up on Thursday, and currents were expected to push the oil slick to the west near islands in Louisiana. Weather models suggest the bulk of the oil won't make landfall before week's end, officials said.
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"If there is impact, it’s not going to be in the form of one giant oil slick — it’s going to be in the form of residual from the spill," said Capt. Tim Close, the commander of U.S. Coast Guard Sector St. Petersburg. "Tarballs, what’s referred to as 'patties,' a darker, thicker, gooier sticky mess, but not one great sheen."
BP had used remote operated vehicles to install a valve late Tuesday on one of the smaller leaks at the end of a broken drill pipe, allowing them to shut off the oil there.
Hope to shut off the remaining flow, however, rests with a still more complicated solution _ the placement over the largest of the leaks of the giant containment dome which engineers hurriedly designed to fit like a hat over the gushing oil.
The dome was placed aboard a barge Wednesday and towed 60 miles to the leak, where officials hoped to begin wenching it into place on Thursday, a process that could take three days or longer, depending on the weather. It likely won't be working until sometime early next week.
""If this works — hallelujah," said Dr. Paul Bonner, a petroleum engineering professor at the University of Texas at Austin.
The use of the contraption is not a sure bet. Similar domes have succeeded in stopping leaking oil wells — most recently in the gulf after Hurricane Katrina damaged rigs — but only a few times and only with smaller leaks in shallower water — not on a gusher 5,000 feet below the surface.
In 1979, Pemex, Mexico’s oil company, tried similar technology when the Ixtoc-1 well blew in the Bay of Campeche, said Eric Smith, associate director of the Tulane Energy Institute. But that effort only captured about 15 percent of the leak, Smith said.
In contrast, BP engineers hope to collect as much as 85 percent of the oil in the dome and then pump it into a ship, the Deepwater Enterprise, before moving it to a storage barge.
BP Chief Operating Officer Doug Suttles acknowledged the difficult of the operation. "This has not been done before," he said. "It is very complex and it will likely have challenges along the way."
Officials are hoping the containment efforts will help avert further disaster until a relief well can be drilled to permanently stop the leak. That could take about three months.
Meanwhile, emergency managers pressed ahead with their plans _ laying more anti-oil boom, training volunteers to clean birds and fishermen to intercept oil, and looking for ways to head off an onslaught that could damage a region headed into its biggest tourist months.
In Biloxi, boat owners met with BP representatives to figure out how their vessels could be used in oil cleanup efforts. Several hundred people attended the four-hour session, which provided information about equipment and possible hazards and BP scheduled two more sessions this week.
Scientists also announced that it appeared unlikely that the oil was behind the deaths of dozens of endangered sea turles whose bodies have been found in the last week along the Mississippi coast.
“Based on careful examination, NOAA scientists do not believe that these sea turtle strandings are related to the oil spill,” said Barbara Schroeder, the national sea turtle coordinator for the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration. Without visible clues of oil on the turtles, lengthy necropsies were conducted on some of the turtles Monday and more are scheduled for later this week.
Scientists reported that they found no evidence on the turtles that they had been in contact with the oil.
The fate of seabirds in the Chandeleur Islands off the Louisiana coast was also in dispute.
The Audubon Society noted Wednesday that Chandeleur is the first of 25 important bird areas in the region where birds have been exposed to the oil.
David Ringer, with Audubon's Mississippi River Initiative, said the group is still trying to determine how island birds have fared, including the once-endangered brown pelican. He said that even if the birds are not heavily coated with oil, he's concerned that exposure to the oil might cause them to sicken later and die.
On Wednesday, however, the barrier islands south of Gulfport appeared relatively unscathed.
Bill and Will Seeman, father and son businessmen in Gulfport, accompanied by a reporter, took a ride to the islands in their 28-foot open boat.
About 33 miles due south of Gulfport, the Seemans encountered what appeared to be oil broken up by the dispersant that disaster responders are spraying from the air and underwater.
But the island marshes and sand appeared clean. Pelicans nested behind booms placed around one spit of marsh.
(Pender, of the Sun Herald, reported from Biloxi, Wyss and Lebovich, of the Miami Herald, reported from Miami. Contributing to this report were Anita Lee and Donna Melton of the Sun Herald in Biloxi, Miss., McClatchy correspondents Lesley Clark and David Lightman in Washington, Sara Kennedy, of the Bradenton Herald, from Bradenton, and Fred Tasker of the Miami Herald from Miami.)