July 13, 2010— -- As BP begins to test the new cap that the company hopes will finally contain its gushing leak in the Gulf of Mexico, crude oil continued to roll into sensitive coastal areas today, an assault on the environment that will last long after the leak is finally under control.
New images taken beneath the surface of the Gulf show plumes of oil, choking the sun from penetrating the surface and starving plants of a crucial element for life. Above the water's surface, experts say that sludge will continue to move onto shorelines for months and maybe even longer.
Watch 'World News' for more of Diane Sawyer's coverage of the oil spill.
"The concern is that the oil will go and enter the sediment," said Moby Salangi, a scientist researching the effects of the spill in the marshes of Mississippi.
The Gulf mud could act like a vault, locking the oil in and making it nearly impossible to clean up. The muddy soil is crucial for life that forms the base of the food chain, as it's the environment where plankton and fish larvae are incubated.
In Alaska, oil can still be found in the soil along the coastlines where the Exxon Valdez spill hit over 20 years ago.
Scientists say the magnitude of this spill, up to 20 times the size of the Exxon Valdez disaster, is so great that they can't yet measure the impact on Gulf animals like sea turtles, fish, shrimp and dolphins. Already, the toll is tremendous.
"As of just a few days ago 643 sea turtles have been found in the area of the spill. 464 of which were found dead or died in rehabilitation," said Charlie Henry, an environmental scientist for NOAA. "Sixty-two Dolphins have been found in the area of the spill, 60 of which have been found dead or died in rehabilitation, and there's been one sperm whale found beached in this response."
"This is an experiment actually happening," said Salangi. "We have never seen anything like this, and again, we don't understand how this will all recover."
BP Begins Testing Process for Oil Containment Cap
BP will soon begin the process of testing the massive cap they installed on the leaking well Monday night, hoping that this will finally be the fix that contains all the leaking oil until relief wells finally plugs the pipe permanently in August.
If it works, it will be the first time that oil will have stopped flowing into the ocean completely since the disaster started nearly three months ago.
The cap needs to be strong enough to withstand the pressure from the oil and gas now shooting up through the well -- a force up to 180 times the pressure of water shooting through a fire hydrant.
BP will carefully close three separate valves to see if the new cap can hold back that oil.
"At that point, there will be no hydrocarbons exiting from the capping stack," said National Incident Cmdr. Adm. Thad Allen. "And we'll go into a period when we start taking pressure readings."
They'll measure the pressure every 12 seconds, and the greater the pressure pushing up against the cap the better, because it would indicate a tight seal with no leaks elsewhere down the pipe.
"Just everybody hope and pray that we see high pressures here," said one BP official today.
So much is riding on this new cap, and many in the Gulf are watching the developments closely on BP's live feed. Still, some in the region fear that this latest attempt will fail like all the others.
"Nothing has worked yet, so that's what we're thinking tonight," said Louisiana oysterman Jeff Gallet.