- The Washington Times - Sunday, April 25, 2010

NEW ORLEANS (AP) — Oil was leaking from a damaged well Sunday nearly a mile below the surface of the Gulf of Mexico, worrying officials who say the spill has the potential to threaten shores from Louisiana to possibly Florida.

High seas forced cleanup crews trying to vacuum and disperse the oily mess to take a second consecutive day off. Airplanes, boats and equipment were mobilized but were on standby as waves stopped them from trying to prevent the spreading oil from washing ashore on beaches, barrier islands and wetlands.

What appeared to a manageable spill a couple of days ago after an oil rig exploded and sank off the Louisiana coast now has turned into a more serious environmental problem. The new leak was discovered Saturday, and as much as 1,000 barrels — or 42,000 gallons — of oil is leaking each day, Coast Guard Rear Adm. Mary Landry said.

The new leak is troubling for the coast’s fragile ecosystem of shrimp, fish, birds and coral. Officials said it’s still too soon to say whether the sensitive habitat will be affected.

“What crude oil tends to do is float to the surface, and then, under wave action, it turns into what looks like chocolate mousse and sinks. It’s way too early to tell” the impact, said James Cowan, an oceanography and coastal sciences professor at Louisiana State University in Baton Rouge.

The initial spill occurred Tuesday when an explosion rocked the Deepwater Horizon oil-drilling platform about 50 miles off the Louisiana coast. More than 100 workers safely escaped the platform, which was about the size of two football fields, but 11 workers have not been found and are presumed dead.

The explosion created a rainbow sheen of oil on the surface of the water for a couple of days. On Thursday, the rig sank, adding another twist to the accident.

Still, officials maintained that no more oil appeared to be leaking.

Severe weather rolled into the region Saturday, and crews had to suspend cleanup efforts. Then, officials offered up the grim news: the new leak had been found.

The sheen on the surface has grown, extending 20 miles by 20 miles Saturday — about 25 times larger than it appeared to be a day earlier, Adm. Landry said.

“This is a very serious spill, absolutely,” Adm. Landry said.

The leak is releasing about 42,000 gallons a day. By comparison, Exxon Valdez spilled 11 million gallons in Alaska’s Prince William Sound in 1989 — the worst oil spill in U.S. history.

“It has the potential to be pretty serious, but at 1,000 barrels a day, if it comes to the surface they’ll probably be able to contain it and vacuum it up,” Mr. Cowan said.

BP PLC, which leased the rig, has taken the lead in the cleanup, and crews have used robot submarines to try to stop the leak by closing valves on the well deep underwater. If that doesn’t work, the company could drill what’s called an intervention well to control the oil flow. But intervention drilling could take months.

“Over the next several days, we should determine which method is the best one to follow,” said Doug Suttles, chief operating officer for BP Exploration and Production.

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