"Any exact estimation of what's flowing out of those pipes down there is probably impossible at this time due to the depth of the water and our ability to try and assess that from remotely operated vehicles and video," Coast Guard Adm. Thad Allen said Saturday during a news conference to address the growing environmental damage caused by a broken wellhead operated by BP.
While Allen expressed optimism regarding efforts to disperse the oil with chemicals and burn some of it on the surface of the ocean, he said stopping the leak is the first priority.
"The first thing is to stop this thing at the source. Continuing to fight this thing at the surface and on the shore is not the right way to do that," Allen said, adding that drilling a relief well and capping the broken wellhead is the only way to "remove the threat."
Drilling equipment is being prepared and staged, but "the actual physical drilling will come at a later date," Allen said. "The tyranny of distance and the tyranny of depth" have so far stymied efforts to contain the leak on the ocean floor.
"What's unprecedented about this event is the depth of the water and the complexity associated with working with a wellhead at 5,000 feet," Allen said.
Nearly 1 million feet of boom has been prestaged or deployed to protect the most sensitive areas of shoreline. Allen said it is "plausible to assume" the oil will reach shore, though when and where is still anyone's guess.
"BP … has been rather forward leaning as far as their commitment to the local communities to hire, employ and train the local citizens for this cleanup, so that commitment is strong," said John Brennan, assistant to the president for homeland security.
BP's deepwater horizon oil rig caught fire April 20 and sank two days later. Eleven workers are missing and believed to have died in the explosion.
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