A Disastrous Oil Spill

Workers race to contain an oil slick that is threatening wildlife in the Gulf of Mexico

Apr 28, 2010 | By Vickie An

Cleanup crews are racing against the clock to contain a massive oil spill in the Gulf of Mexico. The slick is the result of an explosion that occurred on April 20 aboard the Deepwater Horizon oil rig, 50 miles off the coast of Louisiana. The thick, black ooze is threatening miles upon miles of coastline in four states, and putting hundreds of species of wildlife in danger. Experts say the spill could become one of the worst environmental disasters in U.S. history.

"It is of grave concern," says David Kennedy, of the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration. "And the efforts that are going to be required to do anything about it, especially if it continues on, are just mind-boggling."

One Big Mess

There were 126 workers aboard the oil rig at the time of the blast. An oil rig is a large, offshore platform that is used to house workers and machines needed to drill oil wells in the ocean floor. Most of the workers escaped. Eleven people are missing. The cause of the explosion is under investigation. The rig was owned by Transocean Ltd., and operated by the energy company BP.

Since the blast, an estimated 210,000 gallons of oil have been spewing daily from an undersea well, located 5,000 feet below the disaster site. By Monday, the sticky spill had grown to more than 1,800 square miles. That's larger than the state of Rhode Island. Oil from the leak began oozing up on Louisiana's shores on Thursday, and could reach the white-sand beaches of Florida as early as this weekend.

"We've never seen anything like this magnitude," said George Crozier, executive director of the Dauphin Island Sea Lab in Alabama. "The problems are going to be the beaches themselves. That's where it will be really visible."

Scientists and environmentalists worry about the huge impact of the slick on sea life in the area. The waters are home to a variety of marine animals, including dolphins, sea turtles and sea birds. Plant life can also suffer from the spill. "It's already a fragile system," says Mark Kulp, a geologist at the University of New Orleans in Louisiana. "It would be devastating to see anything happen to that system."

Cleaning Up

So far, remote-controlled submarines have been unable to shut off the oil well. Workers will begin drilling a relief well to reroute the oil on Thursday. The process could take months. Crews have been working since last week to skim oil from the water's surface, but time is starting to run out.

In a last-ditch effort, the Coast Guard performed a controlled burn of the oil slick on Wednesday. Workers used fireproof containment booms, or a string of floating barriers, to rein in some of the thicker oil. Then they set it on fire. This causes the oil to harden into balls of tar that can be removed from the water more easily. Authorities do no expect the burn area to affect marine life. The total cost of the cleanup could add up to $1 billion.