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Coast Guard Starts Burning Gulf Oil Slick

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The Coast Guard took a new tack on Wednesday to deal with a large oil spill off the coast of Louisiana. It will attempt to contain the spill by burning petroleum in the large slick of oil.

Ed Overton, a Louisiana State University Environmental Sciences professor, said that igniting the thickest oil could contain the spill if done properly, but that the approach had its risks. "It can be effective in calm water, not much wind, in a protected area," Overton told The Associated Press. "When you're out in the middle of the ocean, with wave actions and currents pushing you around, it's not easy."

The Coast Guard has turned to burning petroleum because an estimated 42,000 gallons of oil a day are leaking into the Gulf from a broken pipe attached to the rig thousands of feet below the sea. The break happened after last week's explosion and fire aboard a Transocean Ltd. oil rig. Underwater robotic machines have been trying to stop the leak but have not had success.

The spill is a major concern for wildlife in the area. The barrier islands close to where the rig sank are home to egrets and brown pelicans. Billions of fish eggs and larvae are on the water's surface during the spring. The federal Fish and Wildlife Service spotted three sperm whales in the area of the spill on Sunday, according to The New York Times.

Burning petroleum can be an environmental concern. But the Coast Guard says wildlife is more likely to flee the smoke from a petroleum fire than to escape from an oil slick. "When you burn it, the plume from the fire is the biggest environmental concern, but this far out to sea it will not be as big of a problem," Texas Land Commissioner Jerry Patterson told The AP. 

The sunken rig, called Deepwater Horizon, was under contract with BP when it sank 50 miles off the Louisiana coast last Tuesday. Eleven workers who were aboard the rig are still missing.

For more WQXR coverage on this story, click here and here.