NEW ORLEANS — Oil company engineers on Sunday finally succeeded in keeping some of the oil gushing from a blown well out of the Gulf of Mexico, hooking up a mile-long tube to funnel the crude into a tanker ship after more than three weeks of failures.
Millions of gallons of crude are already in the water, however, and researchers said the black ooze may have entered a major current that could carry it through the Florida Keys and around to the East Coast.
BP PLC engineers remotely guiding robot submersibles had worked since Friday to place the tube into a 21-inch pipe nearly a mile below the surface. After several setbacks, the contraption was hooked up successfully and funneling oil to a tanker ship. The oil giant said it will take days to figure out how much oil its contraption is sucking up.
The blown well has been leaking for more than three weeks, threatening sea life, commercial fishing and the coastal tourist industry from Louisiana to Florida. BP failed in several previous attempts to stop the leak, trying in vain to activate emergency valves and lowering a 100-ton container that got clogged with icy crystals.
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A researcher told the Associated Press on Sunday that computer models show the oil may have already seeped into a powerful water stream known as the loop current, which could propel it into the Atlantic Ocean. A boat is being sent next week to collect samples and learn more.
William Hogarth, dean of the University of South Florida's College of Marine Science, said one model shows oil has already entered the current, while a second shows the oil is 3 miles from it — still dangerously close. The models are based on weather, ocean current and spill data from the U.S. Navy and the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration, among other sources.
Hogarth said it's still too early to know what specific amounts of oil will make it to Florida, or what damage it might do to the sensitive Keys or beaches on Florida's Atlantic coast. He said claims by BP that the oil would be less damaging to the Keys after traveling over hundreds of miles from the spill site were not mollifying.
"This can't be passed off as 'It's not going to be a problem,' " Hogarth said. "This is a very sensitive area. We are concerned with what happens in the Florida Keys."
BP had previously said the tube, if successful, was expected to collect most of the oil gushing from the well. On Sunday, the company said it was too early to measure how much crude was being collected and acknowledged the tube was no panacea.