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May 17, 2010 11:30 AM by Melissa Canone

BP Siphoning More Than a Fifth of the Oil Spewing

NEW ORLEANS (AP) - BP said Monday it was siphoning more than a
fifth of the oil spewing into the Gulf of Mexico, but worries
escalated about the ooze reaching a major ocean current that could
carry it through the Florida Keys and up the East Coast.
BP PLC chief operating officer Doug Suttles said Monday on NBC's
"Today" that a mile-long tube was funneling a little more than
42,000 gallons of crude a day from a blown-out well into a tanker
ship.
The company and the U.S. Coast Guard have estimated about
210,000 gallons are gushing out each day, though scientists who
have studied video of the leak say it could be much bigger and even
BP acknowledges there's no way to know how much oil there is.
In the nearly a month since an oil rig called the Deepwater
Horizon exploded off the coast of Louisiana, killing 11 workers, BP
has made several failed attempts to stop the leak, trying in vain
to activate emergency valves and lowering a 100-ton container that
got clogged with icy crystals.
Chemicals being sprayed underwater are helping to disperse the
oil and keep it from washing ashore in great quantities. But
millions of gallons are already in the water, and researchers said
that in recent days they have discovered miles-long underwater
plumes of oil that could poison and suffocate sea life across the
food chain, with damage that could endure for a decade or more.
Tar balls have been sporadically washing up on beaches in
several states, including Mississippi, where at least 60 have been
found.
Engineers finally got the contraption to siphon the oil working
Sunday after several setbacks. BP PLC engineers remotely guiding
robot submersibles had worked since Friday to place the tube into a
21-inch pipe nearly a mile below the sea.
Crews will slowly increase how much the tube is collecting over
the next few days. They need to move slowly because they don't want
too much frigid seawater entering the pipe, which could combine
with gases to form the same ice-like crystals that doomed the
previous containment effort.
As engineers worked to get a better handle on the spill, a
researcher told The Associated Press that computer models show the
oil may have already seeped into a powerful water stream known as
the loop current, which could propel it into the Atlantic Ocean. A
boat is being sent later this week to collect samples and learn
more.
"This can't be passed off as 'it's not going to be a
problem,"' said William Hogarth, dean of the University of South
Florida's College of Marine Science. "This is a very sensitive
area. We are concerned with what happens in the Florida Keys."
Hogarth said a computer model shows oil has already entered the
loop current, while a second shows the oil is 3 miles from it -
still dangerously close. The models are based on weather, ocean
current and spill data from the U.S. Navy and the National Oceanic
and Atmospheric Administration, among other sources.
Hogarth said it's still too early to know what specific amounts
of oil will make it to Florida, or what damage it might do to the
sensitive Keys or beaches on Florida's Atlantic coast. He said
claims by BP that the oil would be less damaging to the Keys after
traveling over hundreds of miles from the spill site were not
mollifying.
Damage is already done, with the only remaining question being
how much more is to come, said Paul Montagna, from the Harte
Research Institute for Gulf of Mexico Studies at Texas A&M
University.
"Obviously the quicker they plug this the better, but they are
already having a tremendous effect on the environment," he said.
"In the end, we have to figure out how much is actually pouring
into the Gulf."
BP had previously said the tube, if successful, was expected to
collect most of the oil gushing from the well. Officials still hope
to collect most of it when the tube is working at full capacity.
Two setbacks over the weekend illustrate how delicate the effort
is. Early Sunday, hours before a steady connection was made,
engineers were able to suck a small amount of oil to the tanker,
but the tube was dislodged. The previous day, equipment used to
insert the tube into the gushing pipe at the ocean floor had to be
hauled to the surface for readjustment.
The first chance to choke off the flow for good should come in
about a week. Engineers plan to shoot heavy mud into the crippled
blowout preventer on top of the well, then permanently entomb the
leak in concrete. If that doesn't work, crews also can shoot golf
balls and knotted rope into the nooks and crannies of the device to
plug it, Wells said.
The final choice to end the leak is a relief well, but it is
more than two months from completion.
Top officials in President Barack Obama's administration
cautioned that the tube "is not a solution."
"We will not rest until BP permanently seals the wellhead, the
spill is cleaned up, and the communities and natural resources of
the Gulf Coast are restored and made whole," Secretary of Homeland
Security Janet Napolitano and Secretary of the Interior Ken Salazar
said in a joint statement.
Meanwhile, scientists warned of the effects of the oil that has
already leaked into the Gulf.
Researchers have found more underwater plumes of oil than they
can count from the well, said Samantha Joye, a professor of marine
sciences at the University of Georgia.
The hazards of the plume are twofold. Joye said the oil itself
can prove toxic to fish, while vast amounts of oxygen are also
being sucked from the water by microbes that eat oil. Dispersants
used to fight the oil are also food for the microbes, speeding up
the oxygen depletion.

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