May 27, 2010 11:15 AM by Melissa Canone
COVINGTON, La. (AP) - The Gulf oil spill has surpassed the Exxon
Valdez as the worst in U.S. history, according to new estimates
released Thursday, but the Coast Guard and BP said an untested
procedure to stop it seemed to be working.
A team of scientists trying to figure out how much oil has been
flowing since the offshore rig Deepwater Horizon exploded April 20
and sank two days later found the rate was at least twice and
possibly up to five times as high as previously thought.
Even using the most conservative estimate, that means the leak
has grown to nearly 19 million gallons, surpassing the size of the
1989 Exxon Valdez disaster, which at about 11 million gallons had
been the nation's worst spill. Under the highest estimate, nearly
39 million gallons may have spilled.
U.S. Geological Survey Director Marcia McNutt said two different
teams of scientists calculated that the well has been spewing
between 504,000 and more than 1 million gallons a day.
BP and the Coast Guard estimated soon after the explosion that
about 210,000 gallons a day was leaking, but scientists who watched
underwater video of well had been saying for weeks it was probably
Last week, BP inserted a mile-long tube to siphon some of the
oil into a tanker. The tube sucked up 924,000 gallons of oil, but
engineers had to dismantle so they could start the risky procedure
known as a top kill to try to cut off the flow altogether by
shooting heavy drilling fluid into the well.
If that works, BP will then inject cement into the well to seal
it. The top kill has been used above ground but has never before
been tried 5,000 feet beneath the sea. BP pegged its chance of
success at 60 to 70 percent.
Lt. Commander Tony Russell, an aide to Coast Guard Adm. Thad
Allen, said Thursday that the flow of mud was stopping some oil and
gas but had a ways to go before it proved successful.
"As you inject your mud into it, it is going to stop some
hydrocarbons," he said. "That doesn't mean it's successful."
BP spokesman Tom Mueller also discounted news reports that the
top kill had worked.
"We appreciate the optimism, but the top kill operation is
continuing through the day today - that hasn't changed," he said
Thursday morning. "We don't anticipate being able to say anything
definitive on that until later today."
Oil has been coating birds and delicate wetlands along the
Louisiana coast, and the political fallout from the spill has
reached all the way to Washington, where Democratic sources said
Thursday that the Obama administration has fired the head of the
U.S. Minerals Management Service in response to blistering
criticism over lax oversight of offshore drilling.
The sources, speaking on condition of anonymity before the
official announcement, told The Associated Press that President
Barack Obama would announce the decision Thursday. Elizabeth
"Liz" Birnbaum had run the service in the Interior Department
since July 2009.
Fishermen, hotel and restaurant owners, politicians and
residents along the coast are fed up with BP's failures to stop the
oil, and the anger has turned toward Obama and his administration.
Polls show the public is souring on their handling of the
On Wednesday, the Coast Guard pulled commercial fishing boats
from oil cleanup efforts in Breton Sound off the Louisiana coast
after several people became ill. Crew members on three vessels
reported nausea, dizziness, headaches and chest pains, the Coast
Guard said. Four people were hospitalized, including one who was
flown to a hospital.
If the top kill fails, BP says it has several backup plans,
including sealing the well's blowout preventer with a smaller cap,
which would contain the oil. An earlier attempt to cap the blowout
preventer failed. BP could also try a "junk shot" - shooting golf
balls and other debris into the blowout preventer to clog it up -
during the top kill process.
The only permanent solution is drilling a second well, but that
will take a couple of months.
Though the spill is now the biggest in U.S. history, it's not
the biggest ever in the Gulf. An offshore drilling rig in Mexican
waters - the Ixtoc I - blew up in June 1979, releasing 140 million
gallons of oil.
11 hours ago