Scientists declared the 5-week-old BP spill in the Gulf of Mexico to be the
worst in U.S. history on Thursday, while federal and oil industry officials capped a day
of confusion by announcing they had suspended and then restarted their mud-pumping "top kill."
BP's chief operating officer disclosed that engineers had not pumped any mud
into the runaway oil and gas spill since the night before. On Thursday night, the Coast Guard announced that BP had resumed
pumping mud in an effort to plug the leak.
A 10-hour burst of 15,000 barrels of mud on Wednesday slowed the spill, said BP's
Doug Suttles. But engineers suspended it to replenish the mud back to its 50,000 barrel
capability and review their procedures.
Thursday night's resumption might follow with a "junk
shot'' of "plating materials'' and "dense rubber balls'' to plug the leak.
The news came on a day of grim news and conflicting reports about the latest effort to
end the catastrophic oil spill in its 38th day.
Coast Guard Adm. Thad Allen stirred confusion in a series of remarks that reported
the mud was suppressing the hydrocarbons," meaning the oil and gas leak, but failed to
mention that the so-called top kill was suspended.
Then U.S. Geological Survey Director Marcia McNutt disclosed a new series of studies
that found the leak was a magnitude of two to five times larger than initial estimates --
and far worse than the 1989 Exxon Valdez spill off Alaska.
One team estimated the rate of release at between 12,000 and 19,000 barrels per day.
Another team using different methods found the range could have been up to 25,000, she
Still, McNutt defended the federal performance in the disaster, saying that the U.S.
government "resources and tactics in response to the oil spill have been based on a worst
case, catastrophic scenario."
Environmentalists responded in a fury. "It's as if two Exxon Valdez tankers have
already run aground and more are on the way if they don't get this hole plugged," warned
Jeremy Symons, senior vice president of the National Wildlife Federation. "Now we know
the true scale of the monster we are fighting in the Gulf. BP has unleashed an unstoppable
force of appalling proportions."
More possible bad news came from the University of South Florida College of Marine
Science in St. Petersburg, which said a research vessel in the Gulf of Mexico had detected
a disturbing find: A massive new plume in the deep recesses of the gulf spreading
northeast toward the continental shelf. More tests would determine if it was contamination
from the oil spill heading in a new direction -- toward Mobile Bay, Ala.
A secondary plume, uncovered by the college's Weatherbird II, "could eventually
become a threat to marine life and habitats nonetheless."
President Barack Obama addressed the nation at midday, saying there were no guarantees
of success in the latest effort to stem the leak "a mile under the surface where no human
being can go."
But he vowed both deeper reforms of oil industry oversight and to protect American
small businesses damaged by the disaster.
"We will help them recover and we will help them rebuild," the president said, noting
that all but three Gulf beaches in Louisiana were still open to bathers.
Meantime, the Obama administration said Elizabeth Birnbaum, head of the U.S. Minerals
Management Service inside the Interior Department, had resigned after days of blistering
criticism over the federal government's lax oversight of BP and the rest of the offshore
Obama said his administration had inherited a Minerals Management Service "that had
been plagued by corruption for years." Investigators, he said, had uncovered a
scandalously close relationship'' between federal regulators and the oil industry.
To combat that, he said, the government would separate those who issue the permits in
government from those responsible for regulating safety measures.
Also, the administration was suspending some planned exploration of Alaska's coast and
would suspend the issuing of drill permits for the next six months.
The president emphasized that, while BP was responsible for stopping the leak and
mitigating the damage, it were under federal supervision. McClatchy correspondents Erika Bolstad and Clark reported from Washington, D.C. Goodman
reported from Venice, La. Rosenberg reported from Miami.