Drive south down Louisiana Route 1 to the tip of the bayou and you enter the heart of shrimping country. Some of the world’s finest seafood comes from these delicate grass and reed marshes that stretch as far as the eye can see. These are the great fertile estuaries that provide the nutrients for the bountiful seafood of the gulf.

But man has made its mark here. A new concrete causeway snakes its way through the marshland ending outside the oil services service center of Port Fourchon. Here huge construction cranes and oil service yards  build the massive equipment needed to fuel the thousands of oil wells spread across the Gulf. And it is here that BP is building an experimental oil containment and recovery system to staunch the oil gushing from the damaged well a mile below the sea.

Containment Dome

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BP and its consultant engineers are building two mammoth steel containers to try to cap the broken undersea pipeline and recover the bubbling crude gushing to the surface. Workers in grimy clothes and hardhats tote blowtorches around these 90 ton behemoths, one the shape and size of a small spaceship outfitted with giant metal mudflaps, the other a huge box-like container that will be fitted with a steel conical cap. Sparks fly as welders put finishing touches on some of the metal parts jutting out in all directions.

The idea is to tow these containers 60 miles out to the site of the collapsed rig and drop it on top of the pipeline breaks on the seafloor, smothering them like a concrete block on a leaky garden hose. The oil would then be sucked up through a pipeline from the container to a ship on the surface.

Will it work? No one knows. BP spokeman Don Curry, besieged by the media in the construction yard,  said it was “experimental.” But many are wondering why BP hadn’t thought of this before the explosion.  BP spokesman Don Curry  said nothing like this had ever happened before, so they didn’t expect it. He called it an “unprecedented” event. 

Perhaps. But other rigs have caught fire and collapsed, spewing oil from their wells at the bottom. Remember the blowout near Australia’s Great Barrier Reef? You would think that a company the size of BP would have contingency plans in place for an event like this in one of the world’s richest fishing gournds. And what about the other oil giants here in the Gulf?

So what happens if these giant metal oil containment experiments don’t work? BP is drilling secondary wells nearby to relieve the pressure to try to cap the blowout down below. But that could take months. By that time the undersea gieser of oil may be caught up in the powerful Gulfstream currents and be pushed down the entire Florida coastline to the Keys.

Meanwhile BP is applying massive amounts of chemical dispersants, both at the source 5,000 ft down and on the surface, to try to break up the oil and have it settle in the sea bottom in deep water before it makes its way to the fragile and fertile estuaries that are the key to the ocean’s food chain. BP says the dispersants working and less harmful than allowing the oil to wash into the fertile marshes. But no one seems to have a good answer as to how harmful these chemicals are when used in such huge quantities on the ocean floor.

People here are keeping their fingers crossed that BP’s Jules Verne-like containment contraptions do their job and plug the constant flow of oil undersea. The Gulf’s ecosystem and economy may depend on it.

This article was reprinted with permission from Switchboard.nrdc.org.