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Flying over US oil spill clean-up zone

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From the air, the impact and threat of the oil spill becomes evident

By Rajesh Mirchandani
BBC News, Alabama

As soon as we took off from Mobile, Alabama, the impact and threat of the oil were evident: from the air, we could see miles of orange inflatable booms strung along the shoreline and across the mouths of bays and inlets where people live.

Within minutes, the Gulf of Mexico was below us, bright blue and, apart from oil and gas platforms, deserted: deep-water fishing fleets are restricted because of the spill.

Our pilot, Nate DaPore, works for a disaster relief charity called People Matter Foundation. He was in Haiti after the earthquake; now he is in the Gulf of Mexico tracking another disaster.

Around 30 miles (48km) from shore, he pointed out a few light-coloured lines in the water, parallel bands running east to west; he said this was oil and it looked as if it was being carried with the waves. I was struck by how the lines did not appear to be everywhere, rather in patches.


It was a patchwork of thick orange streaks with oily film between them, refracted rainbows on the sea's surface.

On computer maps, the slick appears to be a single huge body, growing and morphing with time, weather and currents. But what we could see 40 miles (64km) from shore appeared more broken up.

Scientists have already told me they believe the oil is much more widely spread than what is visible.

Soon after, further out to sea, the appearance changed. Thin orange streaks, almost like the veins in marble, fingered their way towards the coastline.

Again, they were not everywhere, but rather in several areas surrounded by the deep blue.

We were flying at 5,000ft (1.5km) and had been in the air for around an hour when a small fleet of ships and platforms appeared.

We were given permission by the coastguard to fly into the restricted zone, so we descended to below 4,000ft (1.2km), and immediately our view changed.

Surrounding the spill site, oil completely covered the water, in all directions for as far as we could see.

Slimy lake

It was a patchwork of thick orange streaks with oily film between them, refracted rainbows on the sea's surface. Here the oil was clearly visible everywhere.

A few ships carried long curving booms behind them, gathering up oil and then siphoning it off the surface. They looked tiny, floating on a slimy lake. Compared to the scale of spill around them, they seemed to be having little effect.

I saw two platforms: one had been used to lower down the giant container BP hoped would cap the leak.

The other was larger; it had a tower at its centre with the green flower logo of BP and a sign bearing the name Transocean (the owners of the rig that exploded, causing this spill).

This platform is BP's long-term solution: already it is drilling down into the leaking well to pump it full of material to seal it.

But this could take two months. Meanwhile, a mile below where we were flying, oil continues to spew into the sea, leaving behind the toxic rust-red web of pollution that we could see.

BP says it is responsible for the clean-up. From the air, you get a real sense of how difficult a job that will be.



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