BILOXI, Miss. — Underwater robots maneuvered a mammoth white containment dome over a leaking oil well 5,000 feet below the surface of the Gulf of Mexico on Friday as environmentalists, fishermen and hoteliers waited to see if the unprecedented effort would contain this region's 17-day-long ecological disaster.
Engineers hoped to thread a slot in the dome over the well's main leaking pipe, then let the dome sink into the mud, creating a water-tight seal. After that, engineers planned to hook a pipeline to it and pump the oil it collects into a waiting barge.
If it works as designed, engineers say the dome, really a 78-ton box with a pyramid on the top, should collect about 85 percent of the estimated 210,000 gallons spewing daily from the well.
However, many things could go wrong.
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"This hasn't been done before and it will undoubtedly have some complications but we are committed to making this work,'' said Doug Suttles, the chief operating officer of British Petroleum, the London-based company that owns the leaking well.
The most daunting part of the process will entail pumping warm water down the hose to keep the oil fluid in the chilly seawater, Suttles said. At that depth and pressure, ice crystals can form that make it harder to pump.
Coast Guard Commander Thad Allen, who's leading the federal response to the spill, said the process is "more like Apollo 13 than the Exxon Valdez."
"Probably the most significant thing about it is it's happening 5,000 feet down," Allen said. "We're captives to the tyranny of what I call distant depth, and there is no human access to the site of the spill.''
Suttles said Friday that the company had "exhausted" its efforts during the past two weeks to use the existing blowout preventer to stop the leak. However, he said a team of 20 experts from across the globe are still trying to come up with a way to inject materials to clog the contraption, "like plugging up a toilet."
Cutting the flow of oil into the sea can't come soon enough. Oil sheens began touching the shores of Louisiana's barrier islands Friday, and there were predictions that the spill could reach the Mississippi coast by Sunday.
Light seas and winds on Friday allowed crews to continue to tackle the spill on the water's surface. Crews have been setting controlled burns, skimming oil from the surface and dropping dispersants to break apart the oil.
"Very favorable for our people to be out there working,'' said Coast Guard Petty Officer David Mosley. "It's clear, relatively calm.''
Those efforts, however, probably have collected or destroyed no more than 14,000 of the estimated 85,000 barrels of oil that have spewed from the well since it exploded on April 20, Coast Guard officials estimated.
Speaking on CNN, BP Chief Executive Tony Hayward said he doesn't know how much larger the oil spill could grow. "That will depend on how successful we are in first eliminating the leak and then containing the spill. None of us today can say with certainty when that is ...''
The biggest concern right now for those watching the oily mass is how far west it could move.
National Oceanographic and Atmospheric Administration scientist Doug Helton said models suggested that the leading edge of the oil would push into the Mississippi Sound toward Gulfport and Pascagoula, Miss., by Sunday and also ooze both east and west.
For now, the slick remains out of the influence of the gulf's powerful Loop Current, which could pull some of the gunk down the coast into the Florida Keys and then into the powerful Gulf Stream along the Atlantic coast.
Florida Department of Environmental Protection Agency Secretary Michael Sole said oil traces could reach Florida's shores by Tuesday.
"The oil plume is 250 miles west of St. Petersburg,'' Sole said. "There is quite a bit of distance between Florida and this plume."
To adjust for the currents, federal authorities on Friday shifted and expanded restrictions on fishing in the gulf. The restrictions on commercial and recreational fishing were extended until May 17.
It came as measured relief to some local charter captains off Biloxi, Miss., as the shifting boundaries opened a 10-mile stretch north of the Mississippi barrier islands, where the jack crevalle, redfish and king mackerel had been biting.
"It's good news," said Capt. Kenny Barhanovich of the Miss Hospitality. "We want to get the word out that we are open for business.''
Still, people who depend on tourism found little to cheer about. Despite clear skies and beached that were cleaner than they've been in a while, tourists stayed away.
"I have never seen such a huge disparity between perception and reality, not just here, but in Florida and Alabama," Linda Hornsby, the director of the Mississippi Hotel and Lodging Association, said Friday. "People are cancelling, and it's gorgeous, wonderful here right now. I'm almost speechless. People are panicking, and it's so many miles away."
"It's just the not knowing what's going to happen, and not knowing what to do or how to help," said Danny Pitalo, the owner of Gorenflo's Tackle at Point Cadet Marina in Biloxi. Gorenflo's, a Biloxi landmark, is a barometer of the area's maritime wellbeing. "Basically, it's shut down," he said.
Many Gulf Coast residents have reported smelling the spill during the past week. However, air monitoring at hundreds of sites between Venice, La., and Panama City, Fla., through Thursday had detected no oil vapors of any significance.
The effects of the spill continued to resonate across the country.
The government has been doing spot checks of deep water oil rigs since the explosion that wracked the Deepwater Horizon drilling rig, setting a blaze that sank the rig two days later. Thirty rigs have been inspected so far, and the "results show no cause for concern,'' said Lars Herbst, the Gulf of Mexico regional director of the Minerals Management Services, part of the Interior Department.
The Interior Department has given Shell Oil until May 18 to provide more information about the company's exploratory drilling plans in the Arctic Ocean and said they'll fall under the temporary halt to all pending U.S. offshore drilling proposals.
(Pender, of the Sun Herald, reported from Biloxi; Miss. Wyss and Lebovich, of the Miami Herald, reported from Miami. Contributing to this article were Curtis Morgan, Mary Ellen Klas and Luisa Yanez of The Miami Herald, Washington correspondents Erika Bolstad and Lesley Clark from Washington and Al Jones of the Sun Herald, from Biloxi, Miss.)
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