http://www.cnn.com/2010/US/05/09/gulf.oil/index.html?hpt=T2Next step to stop oil: Throw garbage at it
NEW: BP officials considering "junk shot" to try to clog blowout container with debris
Crystals accumulated inside containment dome, rendering it ineffective
Dome moved to side of wellhead while crews work to overcome the challenge, BP CEO says
Placing dome over well 5,000 feet underwater had never been tried at such a depth
Venice, Louisiana (CNN) -- If using a massive dome to cover the source of the oil gushing into the Gulf of Mexico doesn't work, crews are preparing for another option: clogging it.
Engineers are examining whether they can close a failed blowout preventer by stuffing it with trash, said Adm. Thad Allen, the commandant of the Coast Guard. The 48-foot-tall, 450-ton device sits atop the well at the heart of the Gulf oil spill and is designed to stop leaks, but it has not been working properly since the oil rig Deepwater Horizon exploded April 20 and later sank.
"The next tactic is going to be something they call a junk shot," Allen told CBS's "Face the Nation" on Sunday. "They'll take a bunch of debris -- shredded up tires, golf balls and things like that -- and under very high pressure, shoot it into the preventer itself and see if they can clog it up and stop the leak."
Oil company BP, the well's owner, had attempted to lower a four-story containment vessel over the well to cap the larger of the well's two leak points. But that plan was thwarted Saturday after ice-like hydrate crystals, formed when gas combined with water, blocked the top of the dome and made it buoyant.
BP said it has not abandoned the dome plan. But Doug Suttles, the company's chief operating officer, told reporters that officials are considering the "junk shot" along with other possible solutions.
Suttles said Saturday that trying to stuff shut the blowout preventer had not yet been attempted because of possible challenges and risks. And Allen said the approach had worked in the past, but never so deep beneath the water's surface.
"We're working at 5,000 feet of depth, which has never been done before," he said.
The dome was resting on the seabed Sunday while crews tried to find a way to deal with the crystals -- a process that could take two days, Suttles told reporters Saturday.
Officials are considering heating the dome or adding methanol to dissolve the hydrates, he said. If the hydrate problem is resolved, BP hopes to connect the dome to a drill ship and to begin sucking oil from the containment dome.
In the meantime, an estimated 210,000 gallons (5,000 barrels) of crude is pouring from the well every day. Hundreds of thousands of feet of boom and large volumes of dispersants continued to be deployed in an effort to capture or break up the spilled oil moving toward the Gulf coastline, and thousands of workers and volunteers diligently worked to skim the water's surface.
National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration forecasters warned that the Mississippi Delta, Breton Sound, the Chandeleur Islands and areas directly north could see oil hit the coast by Tuesday, and significant winds could push oil west of the Mississippi Delta by Monday. And scientists are analyzing tar balls found on a beach on Dauphin Island, Alabama, to determine whether they were caused by the oil spill, and Coast Guard spokesman Erik Swanson said.
The tar balls are "pieces of emulsified oil" shaped like pancakes, ranging in size from dimes to golf balls, but can sometimes occur naturally, Swanson said.
The stakes are high for residents of coastal Louisiana who make their living by fishing in the Gulf. Oil washed ashore Thursday on Louisiana's barrier islands and drifted west past the mouth of the Mississippi River.
"It's killing everybody down here, everybody is more or less getting ulcers worrying about this, and it's something we experienced five years ago with [Hurricane] Katrina," charter-boat owner Tom Becker told CNN Saturday.
Federal investigators are still trying determining what caused the explosion that sank the Deepwater Horizon, owned by BP contractor Transocean Ltd. The explosion left 11 men presumed dead aboard the rig and caused the massive underwater gusher that the company and the federal government have been trying to cap since late April.
Suttles said Saturday that senior BP employees, including the company's vice president for drilling in the Gulf of Mexico, were on board the rig at the time of the explosion discussing its positive safety performance.
"This rig had an outstanding record," he said.
All six BP employees on board were among the 111 people who escaped from the burning rig, Suttles said.
BP is legally required to cover economic damages from the spill up to $75 million. But Florida Sen. Bill Nelson has introduced legislation that would raise the liability cap to $10 billion.
"If this gusher continues for several months, it's going to cover up the Gulf Coast and it's going to get down into the loop current and that's going to take it down the Florida Keys and up the east coast of Florida, and you are talking about massive economic loss to our tourism, our beaches, to our fisheries, very possibly disruption of our military testing and training," Nelson said Sunday on CNN's "State of the Union."