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      Gulf spill surpasses Valdez; plug try going well

      This early Thursday morning, May 27, 2010 image made from video released by British Petroleum (BP PLC) shows equipment being used to try and plug a gushing oil well in the Gulf of Mexico. / AP Photo/BP PLC

      COVINGTON, La. (AP) " An untested procedure to plug the blown-out oil well in the Gulf of Mexico seemed to be working, officials said Thursday, but new estimates showed the spill has already surpassed the Exxon Valdez as the worst in U.S. history.

      A team of scientists trying to determine how much oil has been flowing since the offshore rig Deepwater Horizon exploded April 20 and sank two days later found the rate was more than twice and possibly up to five times as high as previously thought.

      The fallout from the spill has stretched all the way to Washington, where the head of the federal agency that oversees offshore drilling resigned Thursday and President Barack Obama sought to counter criticism by announcing a series of new steps to deal with the spill's aftermath.

      Even using the most conservative estimate, the new numbers mean the leak has grown to nearly 19 million gallons over the past five weeks. If the oil filled gallon milk jugs lined up side by side, there would be enough to reach from New York to Chicago and back.

      In the worst case scenario, if 39 million gallons has spilled, the oil would fill enough jugs to stretch from the Louisiana marshes to Prince William Sound in Alaska. That's where the Exxon Valdez ran aground in 1989, spilling nearly 11 million gallons.

      "Now we know the true scale of the monster we are fighting in the Gulf," said Jeremy Symons, vice president of the National Wildlife Federation. "BP has unleashed an unstoppable force of appalling proportions."

      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 more.

      U.S. Geological Survey Director Marcia McNutt said two different teams of scientists calculated the well has been spewing between 504,000 and more than a million gallons a day.

      BP spokesman Steve Rinehart said the previous estimate came from industry experts and scientists based on the best data available at the time. Asked for the company's response to the new numbers, he replied: "It does not and will not change the response. We are going all out on our response. This is an all-out response and we're doing everything we can to stop this."

      Marine scientists also said Thursday they have discovered a massive new plume of what they believe to be oil deep beneath the Gulf, stretching 22 miles from the leaking wellhead northeast toward Mobile Bay, Ala. The discovery by researchers on the University of South Florida College of Marine Science's Weatherbird II vessel is the second significant undersea plume recorded since the rig exploded.

      Last week, BP inserted a mile-long tube to siphon some of the oil from the gushing well into a tanker. It sucked up 924,000 gallons, but engineers had to dismantle it 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 inject cement into the well to seal it. The top kill has been used above ground but has never been tried 5,000 feet beneath the sea. BP pegged its chance of success at 60 to 70 percent, and Obama cautioned that it "offers no guarantee of success."

      Lt. Commander Tony Russell, an aide to Coast Guard Adm. Thad Allen, said Thursday the mud was stopping some oil and gas but had a ways to go before it proved successful. The top kill started Wednesday night.

      "As you inject your mud into it, it is going to stop some hydrocarbons," Russell said. "That doesn't mean it's successful."

      In Washington, meanwhile, Minerals Management Service Director Elizabeth Birnbaum stepped down from the job she has held since July 2009. Her agency has come under withering criticism from lawmakers of both parties over lax oversight of drilling and cozy ties with industry.

      An internal Interior Department report released earlier this week found that between 2000 and 2008, agency staff members accepted tickets to sports events, lunches and other gifts from oil and gas companies and used government computers to view pornography.

      Polls show the public is souring on the administration's handling of the catastrophe, and Obama sought Thursday to assure Americans that the government is in control. He was responding to criticism that his administration had been slow to act and left BP in charge of plugging the leak.

      He announced that a new moratorium on drilling permits will be extended for six months. He also said he was suspending planned exploration drilling off the coasts of Alaska and Virginia and on 33 wells currently being drilled in the Gulf of Mexico.

      He said many critics failed to realize "this has been our highest priority" but conceded that "people are going to be frustrated until it stops."

      Fishermen, hotel and restaurant owners, politicians and residents along the 100-mile stretch of Gulf coast affected by the spill are also fed up with BP's failures to stop the spill. Thick oil is coating birds and delicate wetlands along the Louisiana coast.

      "I have anxiety attacks," said Sarah Rigaud, owner of Sarah's Restaurant in Grand Isle, La., where the public beach was closed because blobs of oil that looked like melted chocolate had washed up on shore. "Every day I pray that something happens, that it will be stopped and everybody can get back to normal."

      Seven cleanup crew members who reported dizziness, severe headaches and nausea while working in boats off the Louisiana coast remained hospitalized Thursday. The Coast Guard pulled commercial fishing boats from cleanup efforts in Breton Sound on Wednesday after workers first reported feeling sick.

      If the top kill fails, BP says it has several backup plans. The only permanent solution is drilling a second well, but that will take a couple of months. BP plans to go ahead with that even if the top kill works.

      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.

      ___

      Borenstein reported from Washington. Associated Press Writers Ben Nuckols, Matthew Brown, Jason Dearen and Andrew Taylor and Matthew Daly in Washington contributed to this report.

      Copyright 2010 The Associated Press.

      THIS IS A BREAKING NEWS UPDATE. Read earlier story below.

      For news and multimedia about the Gulf oil spill, visit our Gulf Oil Spill section where you can see live video of the leaking pipe.

      (AP) -- BP PLC was pumping heavy mud into the leaking well, and executives said Wednesday night that there had been no problems so far. Still, BP Chief Executive Tony Hayward said engineers would not know until at least Thursday afternoon whether the latest remedy was having some success.

      "The absence of any news is good news," said Coast Guard Admiral Thad Allen, who is overseeing the operation. He added: "It's a wait and see game here right now, so far nothing unfavorable."

      If the risky procedure, known as a top kill, stops the flow, BP would then inject cement into the well to seal it. The top kill has worked 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.

      "We're doing everything we can to bring it to closure, and actually we're executing this top kill job as efficiently and effectively as we can," BP Chief Operating Officer Doug Suttles said.

      Fishermen, hotel and restaurant owners, politicians and residents along the coast are fed up with BP's failures to stop the oil that is coating Louisiana's marshes and the wildlife that relies on them. The anger has turned toward President Barack Obama and his administration. Polls show the public is souring on their handling of the catastrophe.

      Sarah Rigaud, owner of Sarah's Restaurant in Grand Isle is tired and nervous. The oil has to be stopped, she said.

      "The tourists won't come," Rigaud said Wednesday, serving lunch to a half-full restaurant of mostly oil workers and local politicians who are worrying themselves.

      "It makes me very nervous. I have anxiety attacks," she said. "Every day I pray that something happens, that it will be stopped and everybody can get back to normal."

      Also 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.

      The Coast Guard told all 125 commercial vessels that were helping clean up spilled oil to return to shore. Medical workers evaluated the crew members as a precaution.

      The gusher, which has spewed 7 million gallons of crude by the most conservative tallies, began after an offshore drilling rig exploded April 20, killing 11 workers. Dozens of witness statements obtained by The Associated Press show a combination of equipment failure and a deference to the chain of command aboard the rig impeded the system that should have stopped the gusher before it became an environmental disaster.

      Additional leaks springing from the top kill solution were a grave risk, said Anil Kulkarni, a mechanical engineering professor at Penn State.

      "One scenario is that it may make things worse," Kulkarni said. "If it ruptures all over, then it would be even more difficult to close it."

      Suttles said BP had not detected any new leaks as of Wednesday night.

      He said within the next day, if oil stops flowing to the surface, then engineers will know the drilling fluid being pumped in was starting to work. Engineers were monitoring the well's pressure readings constantly to determine how much oil was escaping.

      If not, the company had 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.

      Last week, the company 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 it during the top kill.

      A permanent solution would be to drill a second well to stop the leak, but that was expected to take a couple months.

      Some 100 miles of Louisiana coastline had been hit by the oil, the Coast Guard said.

      When will they stop the oil and can they? They were questions on the lips of residents in Grand Isle at the bottom tip of Louisiana.

      "Certainly there's hope. But the reality for us is that whether they cap it or not, we're still going to have an ecological and economic disaster down here, one that we don't know whether or not we'll be in a position to recover," Jefferson Parish Sheriff Newell Normand said.

      In Pass a Loutre, the odor wafting above the oily water was that of an auto shop.

      "There's no wildlife in Pass a Loutre. It's all dead," Plaquemines Parish President Billy Nungesser said.

      Louisiana-raised Democratic strategist James Carville has been critical of the administration response and hoped Obama's visit Friday would change that.

      "I think you're going to see some real action," once the president sees the oiled coast, Carville said.

      ---

      Associated Press writers Brian Skoloff in Grand Isle, La., Mike Kunzelman in New Orleans, Kevin McGill in Venice, Julie Pace in Fremont, Calif., and Seth Borenstein in Washington contributed to this story.

      ---

      Online:

      http://globalwarming.house.gov/spillcam

      Copyright 2010 The Associated Press.

      For news and multimedia about the Gulf oil spill, visit our Gulf Oil Spill section where you can see live video of the leaking pipe.

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