Oil Spill in Gulf of Mexico: Parts of Slick Set on Fire

Coast Guard tries risky burn to control slick from drilling rig.

ByABC News
April 28, 2010, 11:37 AM

April 28, 2010 — -- This is a measure of how fearsome the oil spill in the Gulf of Mexico has become: engineers set parts of the oil slick on fire this afternoon.

The hope: that they can burn off at least some of the leaking crude before it reaches the gulf coast.

"No populated areas are expected to be affected by the controlled burn operations, and there are no anticipated impacts to marine mammals and sea turtles," said the Coast Guard in a statement. "In order to ensure safety, the Environmental Protection Agency will continuously monitor air quality and burning will be halted if safety standards cannot be maintained."

It is an inherently risky move, said engineers, but less risky than the alternatives.

"When you've got an oil leak like this, you use every tool in the toolbox to keep it offshore," said Edward Overton, a professor emeritus of environmental sciences at Louisiana State University in Baton Rouge. "If it gets to shore, it's going to coat everything with this sticky, gooey stuff and create a tremendous, awful mess."

The Deepwater Horizon drilling rig, operated by BP Oil and owned by Transocean Ltd., exploded and started burning April 20. Eleven rig workers were never found and are presumed to have died.

The Coast Guard said oil continues to spew from the wellhead, 5,000 feet beneath the surface of the gulf, at a rate of about 42,000 gallons per day. Satellite images show the resulting slick drifting north and eastward toward the coasts of Louisiana, Mississippi, Alabama and Florida.

"It's premature to say it's catastrophic," said Coast Guard Rear Admiral Mary Landry, who is leading the operation. "I will say it's very serious."

Some floating oil has come within 20 miles of shore. Adm. Thad W. Allen, commandant of the U.S. Coast Guard, told reporters in Miami today that depending on winds and weather, crews might have two to three days before oil hits land.