BP workers have suspended a four-story oil-containment dome above the sea floor some 5,000 feet deep and are using remote-controlled submersible craft to prepare for placing it over the untapped wellhead, the Coast Guard said Friday afternoon.
The technique has never been tried at such a depth, and there are no guarantees it will work, BP says. The arduous process started early Friday and is expected to continue into the weekend.
"If all goes according to plan, by early next week we hope to make it operational," said Doug Suttles, chief operating officer of BP, which holds the license for the well. "As we always do, though, we stress this has never been done before. We'll likely encounter numerous challenges, but we'll remain committed to make it work."
On the surface of the Gulf of Mexico, the Coast Guard will continue its efforts to disperse and contain the massive oil slick that has started to reach Louisiana's outer islands. The Coast Guard performed four controlled burns, dropped 28,000 gallons of dispersant chemical and skimmed 8,000 barrels of an oil-water mix on Thursday, said Petty Officer Brandon Blackwell.
The Deepwater Horizon oil rig caught on fire April 20 and sank two days later about 50 miles (80 kilometers) off the southeast coast of Louisiana. Eleven missing workers are presumed dead.
The untapped well is gushing about 5,000 barrels (210,000 gallons) of oil a day into the Gulf of Mexico, according to BP and government estimates.
BP earlier this week capped one of the three points where the oil is pouring out, a pipe that is smaller than the main wellhead.
The U.S. Senate Committee on Environment and Public Works is scheduled to hold a hearing Friday afternoon on the disaster's impact on the economy and the environment. Scheduled witnesses include Lamar McKay, chairman and president of BP America, and representatives from several other corporations involved in the spill, such as Halliburton and Transocean Ltd.
Witnesses also will include experts on the impact of the oil on local economies, fisheries and tourism, as well as wildlife and natural resources. Senators from the coastal states also are expected to testify.
The stakes are high for many residents of coastal Louisiana who make their living from fishing in the Gulf. Oil washed ashore Thursday on Louisiana's barrier islands and drifted west past the mouth of the Mississippi River.
An ominous pinkish-orange foam mixture of seawater and crude oil streaked across large stretches of water in the northern Gulf and turned up on the shores of the Chandeleur Islands, off southeastern Louisiana.
Hopes are high that the container will collect the leaking oil, which would then be sucked up to a drill ship on the surface. If the operation is successful, BP plans to deploy a second, smaller dome to deal with a second leak in the ruptured pipe.
Adm. Thad Allen, commandant of the Coast Guard, said he is keeping faith that the containment dome will work.
"I think we're all hopeful that this will have an impact on this leak," Allen said. "It's been done before, but never at these depths. ... It goes to show the amount of effort that's going in to try everything ... to diminish the oil coming out of the ocean floor. But this will be difficult."