In the first step in nearly a month toward stopping a massive Gulf of Mexico oil leak, BP said a mile-long tube was siphoning most of the crude from a blown well to a tanker ship after three days of wrestling to get the stopgap measure into place on the seafloor.
BP spokesman Mark Proegler said the contraption was hooked up successfully and sucking most of the oil from the leak. Engineers remotely guiding robot submersibles had worked since Friday to place the tube into a 21-inch pipe nearly a mile below the sea.
Previous attempts to use emergency valves and a 100-ton container had failed to stop the leak that has spilled millions of gallons of oil into the Gulf, threatening sea life, commercial fishing and the coastal tourist industry from Louisiana to Florida. BP PLC has also been burning small amounts of floating oil and spraying chemical dispersants above and below the surface.
Researchers, meanwhile, warned Sunday that miles-long underwater plumes of oil from the spill could poison and suffocate sea life across the food chain, with damage that could endure for a decade or more.
Researchers have found more underwater plumes of oil than they can count from the blown-out well, said Samantha Joye, a professor of marine sciences at the University of Georgia. She said careful measurements taken of one plume showed it stretching for 10 miles, with a 3-mile width.
The hazardous effects of the plume are twofold. Joye said the oil itself can prove toxic to fish swimming in the sea, while vast amount of oxygen are also being sucked from the water by microbes that eat oil. Dispersants used to fight the oil are also food for the microbes, speeding up the oxygen depletion.
"So, first you have oily water that may be toxic to certain organisms and also the oxygen issue, so there are two problems here," said Joye, who's working with a group of scientists who discovered the underwater plumes in a recent boat expedition to the Gulf. "This can interrupt the food chain at the lowest level, and will trickle up and certainly impact organisms higher. Whales, dolphins and tuna all depend on lower depths to survive."
She said it could take years or even decades for the ecosystem to recover.
Oil has been spewing since the rig Deepwater Horizon exploded April 20, killing 11 people and sinking two days later.
BP has been casting about for ways to contain the leak since it was discovered several days after the blast. First robot submarines were unable to get valves to work on machinery at the well head called the blowout preventer. Then the company failed to capture the oil with a 100-ton box after icelike crystals formed in it.
A relief well, considered the permanent solution the leak, is still being drilled and is months away from completion.
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