An oil spill from a rig that sank off the coast of Louisiana is threatening marshes and beaches across the Gulf Coast, and unless it's contained it could wind up tainting the Florida Keys and perhaps the state's Atlantic coast, oceanography experts said Monday.
As of Monday, the slick was about 48 miles by 39 miles, lying some 30 miles off the coast of Louisiana. So far high winds have kept the spill away from land. It's about 80 miles from the nearest Florida beaches in Pensacola.
But the owner of the rig has been unable to shut off the oil flowing from 5,000 feet below the surface, so the slick continues to grow.
The marshes of southern Louisiana and Mississippi appear to face the most immediate risk from the spill because they are closest to it, said George Crozier, director of the Dauphin Island Sea Laboratory in Mobile, Ala.
What happens after that depends on how quickly the owners of the rig can shut off the flow of oil. On Sunday they began using robot submarines to try to shut off a valve called a blowout preventer on a leaking pipe deep underwater. If that fails, then they will drill new wells on either side of the leak to relieve the pressure there — a process that could take months.
"If it goes on for four months, then yeah, we've got a problem," Crozier said. "But if they're able to shut it down after a day or two, then the risk is minimal."
"We can only hope that they can make that sucker stop very soon," said Wilton "Tony" Sturges , a retired Florida State University oceanographer. The winds that would push the spill toward Tampa Bay's beaches do not normally start until midsummer, he noted.
Officials with the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration are predicting that by today the slick will be pushed more toward the east, away from the Panhandle but pointed more toward Florida's peninsula.
Robert Weisberg, a University of South Florida oceanographer who specializes in studying the gulf, said that while the Panhandle may be safe, he is concerned that if the winds push it far enough to the east, the oil slick could be caught in the gulf's powerful loop current. The loop current flows north from Mexico's Yucatan Peninsula but then makes a clockwise turn and flows south.
If that happens, Weisberg warned, then the oil could be carried "toward the Keys and points up the east coast."
Florida Department of Environmental Protection officials are monitoring the spill, said DEP spokeswoman Dee Ann Miller, but "at this time there is not believed to be an immediate threat to Florida's waters."
Federal officials say they are doing their best to keep the growing oil slick from damaging any of the state's beaches or marshes. "Our goal is to continue to fight this spill as far offshore as possible,'' U.S. Coast Guard Rear Adm. Mary Landry said at a news conference Monday.
One idea: Put a dome over the leaks to catch oil and route it to the surface, where it could be contained. That has worked before with shallow wells. No one knows if it would work 5,000 feet below the surface.
A pod of sperm whales was spotted near the slick on Sunday. At this point no one knows what effect the spill may have on them, although there is a risk of respiratory and eye irritation, or stomach and kidney problems if they ingest the oil, said Teri Rowles, coordinator of NOAA's marine mammal stranding program.
Planes that were dropping chemicals that break down the oil were told to steer clear of the whales. The chemicals, known as dispersants, can be as toxic to mammals as the oil itself, marine biologist Jackie Savitz told the New York Times. So far there are no reports of any dead or injured animals in or near the slick.
The oil, which has been leaking at a rate estimated at 42,000 gallons a day, is coming from the site of the Deepwater Horizon rig, which exploded about 11 p.m. on April 20 and later sank. Eleven members of the 126-member crew remain missing and are presumed dead. The cause of the explosion at the rig, which was under contract to BP, remains under investigation.
Initially Coast Guard officials said there appeared to be no leak from the sunken rig. But on Sunday they discovered oil was in fact leaking from pipes deep beneath the surface.
The rig's owner, Transocean Inc., noted in a news release Monday that the rig — now on the sea floor about 1,500 feet northwest of the well center — was fully insured for $560 million. Transocean is the world's largest offshore drilling contractor.
Information from the New York Times and the New Orleans Times-Picayune was used in this report.