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BP scrambles for way to stop oil leak

A day after icy slush clogged the massive box they hoped would contain an out-of-control oil gusher in the Gulf of Mexico, BP officials on Sunday said they may try again — this time with a smaller box.

They also were considering several other options to stop the daily rush of at least 200,000 gallons of crude, which began washing up on beaches in thick blobs over the weekend.

With crippled equipment littering the ocean floor, oil company engineers scrambled to devise a fresh method to cap the ruptured well. Their previous best hope for containing the leak quickly, a four-story containment box, became encrusted with icelike hydrates, a slushy mixture of gas and water, on Saturday and had to be cast aside.

Among the plans under consideration Sunday:

• Deploying a new, smaller containment box in the hope that it would be less likely to get clogged. Officials said the new box could be in place by midweek.

"We're going to pursue the first option that's available to us and we think it'll be the top hat," a reference to the smaller box, BP chief operating officer Doug Suttles said.

• Cutting the riser pipe, which extends from the mile-deep well, undersea and using larger piping to bring the gushing oil to a drill ship on the surface, a tactic considered difficult and less desirable because it will increase the flow of oil.

• Shooting mud and concrete directly into the well's blowout preventer, a device that was supposed to shut off the flow of oil after a deadly April 20 oil rig explosion but failed. The technique, known as a "top kill," is supposed to plug up the well and would take two to three weeks.

• Try again using the containment box that failed to work Saturday after finding a way to keep the crystals from building up.

The engineers appear to be "trying anything people can think of" to stop the leak, said Ed Overton, a LSU professor of environmental studies.

"Hopefully these are low-risk type of operations," he said. "We don't want to do anything to make it flow more."

An estimated 3.5 million gallons of oil have spilled since the explosion April 20. At that pace, the spill would surpass the 11 million gallons spilled in the Exxon Valdez disaster by next month.

BP PLC spokesman Mark Proegler said no decisions have been made on what step the company will take next. A decision could come as early as today.

With the prospects uncertain for capping the Deepwater Horizon blowout soon, federal, state and local officials were actively assessing a plan to quickly and massively shore up the battered barrier islands that protect the marshlands.

The plan, which local officials hope to present to the White House within days, calls for building up almost 70 miles of barrier islands by dredging sand and mud from a mile out into the Gulf of Mexico and depositing it onto the outer shores of the islands.

Some of the islands included in what local officials call their line of defense are federal bird and wildlife sanctuaries, including the Breton National Wildlife Refuge.

A project of this scale normally requires years of environmental assessments, but local and state officials say there is no time for those now. The current boom system was of little use even in Sunday's calm waters, and officials say they face an environmental disaster when hurricane season arrives and the oily water is pushed into the marshlands ashore.

BP chief operating officer Doug Suttles was in Venice, La., on Sunday and met with local officials about the barrier islands plan, which he described as "not yet complete." He said that the company was interested in further exploring the project after it's more fully developed but that BP hoped to be able to cap the well soon so that a major barrier-building program might not be necessary.

Suttles met with Billy Nungesser, president of Plaquemines Parish, which is especially threatened by the oil. Nungesser said earlier in the day that 10 dredges were available to start work, which he hoped could be done night and day.

"We believe this can be done quickly and in a way that doesn't hurt the pelicans and sea turtles and other great wildlife out there," he said.

"But here's the really bad truth: If we don't do it, the chances are good those birds and animals will be destroyed by the oil later this summer, and the marshes will be destroyed, too."

The April 20 blowout was triggered by a bubble of methane gas that escaped from the well and shot up the drill column, expanding quickly as it burst through several seals and barriers before exploding, according to interviews with rig workers conducted during BP's internal investigation. Deep sea oil drillers often encounter pockets of methane crystals as they dig into the earth.

As the bubble rose, it intensified and grew, breaking through various safety barriers, said Robert Bea, a University of California Berkeley engineering professor and oil pipeline expert.

Information from the Associated Press and Washington Post was used in this report.

Other oil spill developments

Alabama wall: State officials believe they've found a solution to protect the tricky Mobile Bay, the nation's ninth-busiest seaport. Officials are using oil-blocking booms to construct what amounts to a lock system at the bay's mouth, which is 4 miles across. Pilings are being driven into the bay's squishy bottom, and two gates will be attached once they're in place. If oil gets to the mouth of the bay, ships will enter through the first gate, get a scrubbing, and exit through the second.

Beach closed: In Louisiana, truckloads of sand were being delivered and put in sandbags to be dropped by National Guard helicopters along Fourchon Beach, which is southwest of New Orleans. It's one of the few beaches along the Louisiana coast, with about 2 miles of public sand and another 7 miles that is privately owned. Officials declared a state of emergency and closed the beach until further notice.

Cleanup: Booms to protect estuaries, marshlands and coastlines have been put out from west of the Mississippi River to points as far east as Panama City. At Dauphin Island, Ala., a line of materials that resembled a string of pompoms were positioned on a stretch of the shore after dime- to golf ball-sized tar balls were discovered there. About 3.4 million gallons of an oil-water mix has been collected so far. Crews have also used nearly 309,000 gallons of chemicals to break up the oil on the water's surface.

BP scrambles for way to stop oil leak 05/09/10 [Last modified: Monday, May 10, 2010 9:05am]
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