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BP forced to admit leak is bigger

Success collecting oil with a milelong suction tube shows that the spill may be far worse than thought.

May 21, 2010|By Julie Cart and Bettina Boxall, Los Angeles Times

BP's success at drawing oil from a leaking pipe has proved that official estimates of the size of the Gulf of Mexico spill have been too low.

The company effectively admitted as much Thursday when it said that a tube inserted into the broken pipe connected to its blown-out well is collecting as much as 5,000 barrels of oil and 15 million cubic feet of gas a day, even as a live video feed shows large volumes continuing to billow into gulf waters.

"There's still oil leaking there. We're not saying otherwise," BP spokesman Mark Proegler said Thursday.

After the company released a video of the gushing leak last week, independent scientists estimated the amount of oil spewing into the gulf could be 14 times as great as the 5,000-barrel-a-day figure officials have used for weeks to describe the month-old spill.

"From the beginning, we've been working with the [ National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration] and the Coast Guard, and they are the source, using visual observations, of the size of the leak," Proegler said. "We have asserted that there's no way of accurately measuring from the end of the flow pipe. Others are taking issue with that, and that's fine."

NOAA administrator Jane Lubchenco said Thursday that 5,000 barrels, or 210,000 gallons, "was always understood to be a very rough estimate. That number was useful and the best estimate at the time." She added that the federal government established an interagency task force this week "to get to the bottom of the flow rate in a scientific fashion."

Since the company placed a 4-inch suction tube into the broken riser pipe Sunday, it has gradually drawn off greater amounts of oil and gas and sent it 5,000 feet to the oil-processing ship Enterprise. Engineers had to ramp up the process carefully, Proegler said, to avoid pulling in water that would mix with natural gas and promote the formation of pipe-clogging hydrates.

"We're not done," Proegler said. "We're going to continue to increase the rate on the insertion tube as high as we can."

The company plans to attempt a "top kill" this weekend or early next week that could plug the blown-out wellhead by injecting heavy fluids into it.

The oil giant has come under sharp criticism for not being more forthcoming about the results of testing and monitoring of the spill. Homeland Security Secretary Janet Napolitano and Environmental Protection Agency Administrator Lisa P. Jackson on Thursday sent BP Chief Executive Tony Hayward a letter demanding that the company make available all data and information it has collected on the disaster, including reports of internal investigations.

Capitol Hill lawmakers investigating the disaster also posted a live BP video feed of the leak, dubbed Spillcam by one congressional aide, at

In an apparent bow to pressure from Congress and marine scientists, the EPA gave BP until Monday to begin using a less toxic oil dispersant to break up the growing slick.

Nearly 700,000 gallons of dispersant have been applied so far, the most ever used in a U.S.-based oil spill. Most of it has been released on the water's surface to break oil into droplets that will more quickly decompose with the help of oil-eating bacteria. But in a move that has worried some marine biologists, the EPA and the Coast Guard have allowed the unprecedented release of dispersants near the damaged wellhead, nearly a mile deep.

Carys L. Mitchelmore, a toxicologist who studies the effects of pollutants on aquatic life at the University of Maryland's Chesapeake Biological Laboratory, called the prolonged use of dispersants in the gulf "one big experiment."

Using dispersants has the effect of exposing marine life to more oil, imperiling deep sea organisms, she said.

Federal officials have acknowledged that not much is known about the long-term environmental effects of dispersant, but they countered that the oil was far more toxic and posed a greater threat to marine life, wildlife, marshes and wetlands.

The EPA also posted on its website the results of BP testing that concluded that the two types of the dispersant Corexit in use so far were effective and posed no significant risk to aquatic life. The EPA did not explain the apparent contradiction of its order and the test results.

Some cleanup workers in the 1989 Exxon Valdez spill developed health problems that were blamed on a chemical found in Corexit 9527, one of the dispersants the EPA ordered BP to stop applying. The chemical, 2-butoxyethanol, was removed from the other version used in the BP spill, Corexit 9500.

BP said it was complying with the order and had been testing alternative products for some time.

Bruce Gebhardt is president of U.S. Polychemical Corp., which manufactures Dispersit, a water-based product that proved more effective and less toxic in EPA testing than Corexit. He said his company was contacted by BP two weeks ago and provided samples.

By Thursday, an overwhelmed Gebhardt said his office based in New York state had been flooded with calls, including from BP. "They wanted to know how much we could make and how fast we could get it there," he said, adding that BP had not decided which dispersant it was switching to.

Times staff writers Margot Roosevelt in Los Angeles and Richard Simon in Washington contributed to this report.

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