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Apr 27, 2010 1:21 PM by Bea Karnes, News First 5

Oil slick as big as Rhode Island and growing

The Coast Guard said Tuesday that an oil slick in the Gulf of Mexico caused by last week's rig explosion was growing.

Eleven people are missing and presumed dead since the drilling rig was hit by the blast and then sank about 50 miles off the Louisiana coast.

As of Tuesday morning, oil that leaked from the rig site was spread over an area about 48 miles long and up to 80 miles wide - larger than the state of Rhode Island.

The borders of the spill were uneven, making it difficult to calculate how many square miles are covered, Coast Guard Petty Officer Erik Swanson said.

"Right now, the weather's in our favor," Swanson said, explaining that the wind was blowing the oil away from shore Tuesday.

But Swanson said the winds could shift later in the week and there was concern about oil reaching the shore.

So far, skimming vessels had collected more than 48,000 gallons of oily water, Swanson said.

"Our goal is to fight this thing as far offshore as possible," he said.

The rig was owned by Transocean Ltd. and was working for BP PLC.

Crews are using robot submarines to try to activate valves in hopes of stopping the leaks, but the strategy has yet to work.

BP also mobilized two rigs to drill a relief well if needed. Such a well could help redirect the oil, though it could also take weeks to complete, especially at that depth.

BP plans to collect leaking oil on the ocean bottom by lowering a large dome to capture the oil and then pumping it through pipes and hoses into a vessel on the surface.

Doug Suttles, chief operating officer of BP exploration, said that would take about two weeks. "That system has been deployed in shallower water, but it has never been deployed at 5,000 feet of water, so we have to be careful," he said.

The spill, moving slowly north and spreading east and west, was about 30 miles from the Chandeleur Islands off the Louisiana coast. The Coast Guard said kinks in the pipe were helping stem the flow of oil.

From the air Monday afternoon, the oil spill reached as far as the eye could see. There was little evidence of a major cleanup, with only a handful of vessels near the site of the leak.

The oil sheen was a shiny light blue color, translucent and blending with the water, but a distinct edge between the oil slick and the sea could be seen for miles.

'Problems' on the beaches
George Crozier, oceanographer and executive director at the Dauphin Island Sea Lab in Alabama, said he was studying wind and ocean currents driving the oil.

He said Pensacola, Florida, is probably the eastern edge of the threatened area, though no one really knows what the effects will be.

"We've never seen anything like this magnitude," he said. "The problems are going to be on the beaches themselves. That's where it will be really visible."

Concern Monday focused on the Chandeleur and Breton barrier islands in Louisiana, where thousands of birds are nesting.

"It's already a fragile system. It would be devastating to see anything happen to that system," said Mark Kulp, a University of New Orleans geologist.

Oil makes it difficult for birds to fly or float on the water's surface. Plant life can also suffer serious harm. Whales have been spotted near the oil spill, though they did not seem to be in any distress.

The spill also threatened oyster beds in Breton Sound on the eastern side of the Mississippi River. Harvesters could only watch and wait.

"That's our main oyster-producing area," said John Tesvich, a fourth-generation oyster farmer with Port Sulphur Fisheries Co. His company has about 4,000 acres of oyster grounds that could be affected if the spill worsens.

"Trying to move crops would be totally speculative," Tesvich said. "You wouldn't know where to move a crop. You might be moving a crop to a place that's even worse."

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