Image: Cable attached to oil containment device
Gerald Herbert  /  AP
The cable attached to the oil containment device that was lowered to the sea floor hangs off the side of the Q4000 mobile drilling platform at the site of the Deepwater Horizon oil spill in the Gulf of Mexico on Sunday.
updated 5/9/2010 5:22:33 PM ET 2010-05-09T21:22:33

A growing collection of crippled equipment littered the ocean floor Sunday near a ruptured oil well gushing crude into the Gulf of Mexico, the remnants of a massive rig that exploded weeks ago and the failed efforts since to cap the leak.

On the surface, nearly a mile up, a fleet of ships maneuvered to deploy the latest stopgap plans hatched by BP engineers desperate to keep the Deepwater Horizon disaster from becoming the nation's worst spill. An estimated 3.5 million gallons has risen from the depths since the April 20 explosion that killed 11, a pace that would surpass the total spilled in the Exxon Valdez disaster by June 20.

A day after icelike crystals clogged a four-story box that workers had lowered atop the main leak, crews using remote-controlled submarines hauled the specially built structure more than a quarter-mile away and prepared other long-shot methods of stopping the flow.

One technique would use a tube to shoot mud and concrete directly into the well's blowout preventer, a process that could take two to three weeks.

Chief operating officer Doug Suttles said BP was also thinking about putting a smaller containment dome over the massive leak, believing that it would be less vulnerable because it would contain less water. The smaller dome could be ready to deploy Tuesday or Wednesday.

The company was also now debating whether it should cut the riser pipe undersea and use larger piping to bring the gushing oil to a drill ship on the surface. Cutting the pipe would be tough, and was considered the less desirable option, said Suttles, who gave no indication of exactly what the next step would be.

As BP weighed its options on the mainland, waves of dark brown and black sludge crashed into a boat in the area above the leak. The fumes there were so intense that a crewmember of the support ship Joe Griffin and an AP photographer on board had to wear respirators while on deck.

A white cattle egret landed on the ship, brownish-colored stains of oil on its face and along its chest, wings and tail.

Meanwhile, thick blobs of tar washed up on Alabama's white sand beaches, yet another sign the spill was spreading.

It had taken about two weeks to build the box and three days to cart the containment box 50 miles out and slowly lower it to the well a mile below the surface, but the frozen depths were just too much. BP officials were not giving up hopes that a containment box — either the one brought there or another one being built — could cover the well. But they said it could be Monday or later before they decide whether to make another attempt to capture the oil and funnel it to a tanker at the surface.

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. The crystals clogged the opening in the top of the peaked box, BP chief operating officer Doug Suttles said, like sand in a funnel, only upside-down.

The containment box plan, never before tried at such depths, had been designed to siphon up to 85 percent of the leaking oil.

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 sea oil drillers often encounter pockets of methane crystals as they dig into the earth.

As the bubble rose, 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 exclusively to an AP reporter.

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

Video: Tar hits beaches

  1. Closed captioning of: Tar hits beaches

    >>> but first the massive oil leak in the gulf of mexico . nbc affairs correspondent ann thompson is in venice , louisiana . ann , good morning.

    >> reporter: good morning, jenna. people have described the disaster as a slow-moving hurricane. it picked up speed over the weekend. tar balls were found on the sandy beaches of alabama , dauphin island , at the mouth of mobile bay . those tar balls are anywhere in size from the size of a dime to the size of a golf ball . they are going to be tested to make sure they did, indeed, come from the oil slick . while that was happening out at the leak site, huge problems with that containment dome . bp officials say that gas hydrates , think of them as ice crystals got inside the dome and started to make the dome buoyant and lifted up off the sea floor and those crystals also clogged the hole, clearly frustrating bp officials.

    >> i wouldn't say it's failed yet. what i would say is what we attempted to do last night didn't work because the hydrates plugged up the top of the dome. what we're currently doing and it will take the next 48 hours or so, is there a way to overcome this problem?

    >> reporter: they know how to get rid of the hydrates, just lift the dome up to warmer waters. the problem is how to keep them from forming again once they put the dome on the sea floor . they have lifted it off the leak and moved it some two football fields away. also yesterday, was there a protest against offshore drilling in new orleans. 200 people marched in the streets there, carrying signs. the slogan drill, baby, drill. they turned that into clean, baby, clean. in talking to charter boat fishermen -- or charter boat captains and fishermen down here, there isn't that anger yet at offshore drilling that some might expect.

    >> ongoing frustration, ann thompson. thank you. now here's lester .


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