BP in new attempt to stem worst oil spill in US history

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The Independent US

BP officials today expressed their disappointment at failing to plug the uncontrolled flow of oil from the worst spill in US history.

Six weeks after the catastrophe began, oil giant BP PLC is trying to find at least a temporary fix to the spewing well underneath the Gulf that's fouling beaches, wildlife and marshland.

The relief wells currently being drilled - which are supposed to be a better long-term solution - will not be ready for at least two months.

BP said yesterday that the procedure known as the "top kill" failed after engineers tried for three days to overwhelm the crippled well with heavy drilling mud and junk 5,000ft underwater.

Robert Dudley, BP's managing director, said on Fox News Sunday that company officials were disappointed that they have "failed to wrestle this beast to the ground".

Scepticism is growing that BP can solve the crisis.

Republican Ed Markey, who leads a congressional committee investigating the disaster, told CBS television's Face the Nation today that he had "no confidence whatsoever in BP.

"So I don't think that people should really believe what BP is saying in terms of the likelihood of anything that they're doing is going to turn out as they're predicting," the Massachusetts Democrat said.

Now, BP hopes to saw through a pipe leading out from the well and cap it with a funnel-like device using the same remotely guided undersea robots that have failed in other tries to stop the gusher.

Even that effort won't end the disaster - BP officials have only pledged it will capture a majority of the oil. None of the remaining options would stop the flow entirely or capture all the crude before it reaches the Gulf's waters.

Engineers will use remotely guided undersea robots to try to lower a cap onto the leak after cutting off part of a broken pipe leading out from the well. The funnel-like device is similar to a huge containment box that failed before when it became clogged with ice-like slush.

Mr Dudley said officials learned a lot from that failure and will pump warm water through the pipes to prevent the ice problems.

The spill is the worst in US history - exceeding even the 1989 Exxon Valdez disaster - and has dumped between 18 million gallons and 40 million gallons into the Gulf, according to government estimates. The leak began after the Deepwater Horizon drilling rig exploded on April 20, killing 11 people.

"This scares everybody, the fact that we can't make this well stop flowing, the fact that we haven't succeeded so far," BP Chief Operating Officer Doug Suttles said yesterday.

"Many of the things we're trying have been done on the surface before, but have never been tried at 5,000ft."

He said cutting off the damaged riser isn't expected to cause the flow rate of leaking oil to increase significantly.

Experts have said that a bend in the damaged riser likely was restricting the flow of oil somewhat, so slicing it off and installing a new containment valve is risky.

"If they can't get that valve on, things will get much worse," said Philip W. Johnson, an engineering professor at the University of Alabama.

News that the top kill fell short drew a sharply worded response from President Barack Obama yesterday, a day after he visited the Gulf Coast to see the damage firsthand.

"It is as enraging as it is heartbreaking, and we will not relent until this leak is contained, until the waters and shores are cleaned up, and until the people unjustly victimised by this manmade disaster are made whole," Obama said.

Later President Obama's top energy adviser said the Gulf oil spill is probably the biggest environmental disaster the US has ever faced.

Carol Browner said the government is responding with its largest environmental response ever.

Browner said more oil is leaking into the Gulf of Mexico than from any previous US oil spill - including the Exxon Valdez spill off the coast of Alaska in 1989.

In the days after the spill, BP was unable to use robot submarines to close valves on the massive blowout preventer atop the damaged well, then two weeks later, ice-like crystals clogged a 100-ton box the company tried placing over the leak. Earlier this week, engineers removed a mile-long siphon tube after it sucked up a disappointing 900,000 gallons of oil from the gusher.