Image: A clean-up crew member
BRIAN SNYDER  /  Reuters
A clean-up crew member collects tar balls at Dauphin Island, Ala. The tar balls are found in isolated spots along the beach.
updated 5/8/2010 9:15:41 PM ET 2010-05-09T01:15:41

A novel but risky attempt to use a 100-ton steel-and-concrete box to cover a deepwater oil well gushing toxic crude into the Gulf of Mexico was aborted Saturday after ice crystals encased it, an ominous development as thick blobs of tar began washing up on Alabama's white sand beaches.

The setback left the mission to cap the ruptured well in doubt. It had taken about two weeks to build the box and three days to cart it 50 miles out then slowly lower it to the well a mile below the surface, but the frozen depths were too much for it to handle.

Still, BP officials overseeing the cleanup efforts were not giving up just yet on hopes that a containment box — either the one brought there or a larger one being built — could cover the well and be used to capture the oil and funnel it to a tanker at the surface to be carted away. Officials said it would be at least Monday before a decision was made on what next step to take.

"I wouldn't say it's failed yet," BP chief operating officer Doug Suttles said. "What I would say is what we attempted to do ... didn't work."

There was a renewed sense of urgency as small bits of tar began washing up on Dauphin Island, three miles off the Alabama mainland at the mouth of Mobile Bay and much farther east than the thin, rainbow sheens that had so far arrived sporadically in the Louisiana marshes.

"It almost looks like bark, but when you pick it up it definitely has a liquid consistency and it's definitely oil," said Kimberly Creel, 41, who was hanging out and swimming with hundreds of other beachgoers. "... I can only imagine what might be coming this way that might be larger."

About a half dozen tar balls had been collected by Saturday afternoon at Dauphin Island, Coast Guard chief warrant officer Adam Wine said in Mobile. Authorities planned to test the substance but strongly suspected it came from the oil spill.

A long line of materials that resembled a string of pompoms were positioned on a stretch of the shore. Crews walked along the beach in rubber boots, carrying trash bags to clear debris from the sand.

Brenda Prosser, of Mobile, said she wept when she saw the workers.

"I just started crying. I couldn't quit crying. I'm shaking now," Prosser said. "To know that our beach may be black or brown, or that we can't get in the water, it's so sad."

Prosser, 46, said she was afraid to let her 9-year-old son, Grant, get in the water, and she worried that the spill would rob her of precious moments with her own child.

"I've been coming here since I was my son's age, as far back as I can remember in my life," Prosser said.

In the three weeks since the Deepwater Horizon rig exploded on April 20, killing 11 workers, about 210,000 gallons of crude a day has been flowing into the Gulf. Until Saturday none of the thick sludge — those iconic images of past spills — had reached Gulf shores.

It was a troubling turn of events, especially since the efforts to use the containment box had not yet succeeded.

The icy buildup on the containment box made it too buoyant and clogged it up, BP's Suttles said. Workers who had carefully lowered the massive box over the leak nearly a mile below the surface had to lift it and move it some 600 feet to the side. If it had worked, authorities had said it would reduce the flow by about 85 percent, buying a bit more time as a three-month effort to drill a relief well goes on simultaneously.

Company and Coast Guard officials had cautioned that icelike hydrates, a slushy mixture of gas and water, would be one of the biggest challenges to the containment box plan, and their warnings proved accurate. The crystals clogged the opening in the top of the peaked box like sand in a funnel, only upside-down.

Options under consideration included raising the box high enough that warmer water would prevent the slush from forming, or using heated water or methanol to prevent the crystals from forming.

Even as officials pondered their next move, Coast Guard Rear Adm. Mary Landry said she must to continue to manage expectations of what the containment box can do.

"This dome is no silver bullet to stop the leak," she said.

The captain of the supply boat that carried the precious cargo for 11 hours from the Louisiana coast earlier last week wasn't giving up hope.

"Everybody knew this was a possibility well before we brought the dome out," Capt. Demi Shaffer, of Seward, Alaska, told an Associated Press reporter stationed in the Gulf in the heart of the containment zone with the 12-man crew of the Joe Griffin. "It's an everyday occurrence when you're drilling, with the pipeline trying to freeze up."

The spot where Deepwater Horizon rig once was positioned is now teeming with vessels working on containing the well. There are 15 boats and large ships at or near the site — some being used in an ongoing effort to drill a relief well, another with the crane that lowered the containment device to the seafloor.

There is even a vessel at the site called the Seacor Lee that is sending a live video feed from the undersea robots back to BP's operations center in Houston.

"Everyone was hoping that that would slow it down a bit if not stop it," said Shane Robichaux, of Chauvin, a 39-year-old registered nurse relaxing at his vacation camp in Cocodrie, La. "I'm sure they'll keep working on it 'til it gets fixed, one way or another. But we were hopeful that would shut it down."

The original blowout was triggered by a bubble of methane gas that escaped from the well and shot up the drill column, expanding quickly as it burst through several seals and barriers before exploding, according to interviews with rig workers conducted during BP PLC's internal investigation.

Deep beneath the seafloor, methane is in a slushy, crystalline form. Deep sea oil drillers often encounter pockets of methane crystals as they dig into the earth.

As the bubble rose up the drill column from the high-pressure environs of the deep to the less pressurized shallows, it intensified and grew, breaking through various safety barriers, said Robert Bea, a University of California Berkley engineering professor and oil pipeline expert who detailed the interviews to an Associated Press reporter.

"A small bubble becomes a really big bubble," Bea said. "So the expanding bubble becomes like a cannon shooting the gas into your face."

Copyright 2010 The Associated Press. All rights reserved. This material may not be published, broadcast, rewritten or redistributed.

Video: Gulf cleanup progressing

  1. Closed captioning of: Gulf cleanup progressing

    >> now here's amy.

    >>> heading to the gulf of mexico for latest in the big oil leak. first reports of what may have caused the explosion of the drilling rig are now emerging. the associated press is reporting that it was brought on by a double of methane gas that escaped from the well and expanded as it shot up the drilling column. meanwhile, nbc 's anne thompson is following the attempts to cap off the well. big step yesterday. the latest, anne, good morning.

    >> reporter: good morning, lester . 50 miles out at sea at the leak site, crewing are keeping a very close eye on that containment dome as it settled into the seafloor, while closer to shore officials closed the national wildlife refuge to the public in order to give the crews some space to clean up the oil that approached there earlier this week, and to prevent more from washing ashore. the water around the louisiana chand lear islands is surrounded. we found oil 200 miles west of the shore. as we approached the shore friday, a hopeful sign.

    >> have you seen any oil around here?

    >> been here yesterday.

    >> reporter: any today?

    >> none today.

    >> reporter: saying the tides and ever-changing currents most likely moved the oil. the chain of berrier islands is part of the refuge where 13 species of birds nest , including the brown pelican .?r this is the first line of defense here at north island . it seems to go on for miles. two layers of boom to protect the land so many birds depend on. calm seas and winds helped crews at the leak site make progress in cleaning up the mess. four controlled burns consumed up to 9,000 barrels of oil thursday and more scheduled friday. crews lowered containment dome thursday night , and late friday afternoon, it hovered 200 feet above one the leaks. this leak is gushing 85% of the oil that makes up the spill.

    >> what we have to do is lower the chamber so it straddles this piece of pipework and will sink down through the mud up to the point that these wingses are on the top of the chamber.

    >> reporter: if that works, this weekend the pipe will be connected to the top of the dome, and oil could be pumped out as early as monday. now, at this hour that containment dome in fact sits over that big leak, and is settling into the seafloor. once that happens they'll connect the pipe. lester , that presents a whole new set of challenges for these crews, because it is so cold amile under the surface ever the sea, about 42 degrees, that that pipe could actually clog, and so that's the next hurdle for this system that has never worked at these depths before. lester ?

    >> a lot of folks holding their breath this morning. anne thompson , thank you very much .

    >>> the coastal communities along the gulf of mexico wait to see the impact of that growing oil slick , the oyster might provide first clues for the nervous fishing and seafood industries. nbc 's mike taibbi looks at one oyster habitat off the coast of alabama .

    >> reporter: on a perfect day to be on the water, we join scientists from the nature conservancy whose goal had been simple. to continue monitoring the artificial reef they've been created the past few months to rebuild some of the richest oyster grounds in the world.

    >> all we're trying to do is restore some of the injustices we have done to it in the last few decades.

    >> reporter: they're trying three different types of artificial reef blocks. bag shells, cement spheres and triangular blocks. this now a different kind of laboratory. can this fragile habitat survive an oil landfall?

    >> hopefully a year from now, this will be covered with live, brand new oysters.

    >> reporter: this artificial reef has been in place a matter of weeks but is already turning into a living habitat. several species of crabs have quickly taken up residence. and many types's fin fish quickly used 9 man-made reefs like the real thing.

    >> what we're seeing are the larval and juvenile stages, babies and teenager, if you will, of these fish coming in and really colonizing here.

    >> reporter: now the hemorrhages oil is the story. while they're building more artificial blocks on land they're not adding to what's already in the water, just trying to protect it. waiting and watching and worrying, like those who fish for oysters --

    >> we ain't going to bti able to work the next four, five years probably.

    >> i don't know what's going to happen.

    >> reporter: and like anyone else who make as living off the living gulf. like restauranteur bobby mahony.

    >> i just won't be a seafood restaurant anymore, i guess.

    >> reporter: nervous laughter now, until the fragile ecosystems tell us just how bad the damage will be. for "today," mike taibbi , nbc news, in alabama .

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