NEW ORLEANS (May 17, 2010)—Engineers finally figured out how to siphon some of the oil that has been spewing into the Gulf for almost a month, but it could be too late to stop the ooze from reaching a major ocean current that could carry it through the Florida Keys and up the East Coast.
After weeks of failed solutions, BP PLC crews on Sunday hooked up a mile-long tube to funnel the crude from a blown well into a tanker ship. However, millions of gallons of crude are already in the Gulf of Mexico.
A researcher told The Associated Press that computer models show the oil may have already seeped into a powerful water stream known as the loop current, which could propel it into the Atlantic Ocean. A boat is being sent later this week to collect samples and learn more.
"This can't be passed off as 'it's not going to be a problem,'" said William Hogarth, dean of the University of South Florida's College of Marine Science. "This is a very sensitive area. We are concerned with what happens in the Florida Keys."
BP PLC engineers remotely guiding robot submersibles had worked since Friday to place the tube into a 21-inch pipe nearly a mile below the sea. After several setbacks, it was working, though officials warned that it was too early to measure how much crude was being collected and acknowledged it was no panacea.
Samantha Joye, a professor of marine sciences at the University of Georgia, reported that researchers have found more underwater oil plumes than they could count as a result of the spill. One reportedly stretched for 10 miles, was 3 miles wide and hundreds of feet deep.
"It could take years, possibly decades, for the system to recover from an infusion of this quantity of oil and gas," Joye told the Associated Press. "We've never seen anything like this before. It's impossible to fathom the impact."
A National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration forecast on Sunday afternoon showed the main body of the oil slick moving farther away from Alabama's coast through Wednesday. But a researcher has expressed concern that the slick may have already entered a water current that could pull it to the Florida Keys.
William Hogarth, dean of the University of South Florida's College of Marine Science, said that one computer model shows the oil already in the Gulf's largest loop current, and another shows it dangerously close. A research vessel is scheduled to go to the Gulf Tuesday to collect samples and learn more.
Some scientists speculated that the detergent-like dispersants, which are being used to keep the oil from rising to the water's surface, may be contributing to the underwater plumes.
The hazardous effects of the plumes are two-fold, according to Joye. She said the oil itself can prove toxic to fish swimming in the sea, while vast amounts of oxygen are also being sucked from the water by microbes that eat oil. Dispersants are also food for the microbes, speeding up the oxygen depletion.