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Next step to stop oil: Throw garbage at it

By the CNN Wire Staff
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Oil spill setback
STORY HIGHLIGHTS
  • BP officials considering "junk shot" to try to clog blowout container with debris
  • Crystals accumulated inside containment dome, rendering it ineffective
  • Dome moved to side of wellhead while crews work to overcome the challenge, BP CEO says
  • Placing dome over well 5,000 feet underwater had never been tried at such a depth

Venice, Louisiana (CNN) -- BP working on 'parallel paths' to stop oil gush, company says By the CNN Wire Staff

VENICE, Louisiana (CNN) -- BP is working "parallel paths" to fix an oil well blowout that is dumping 210,000 gallons of crude into the Gulf of Mexico a day, the energy company's chief operating officer said Monday.

The failure over the weekend of a four-story dome to cap the leak has led BP to move on to other options, including the use of a smaller chamber over the leak and shooting garbage into the gaping hole to try to plug the gusher, said Doug Suttles, BP's chief operating officer for exploration and production.

The company also is considering placing a valve or a new blowout preventer on top of the existing one, which is not functioning, Suttles told CNN's "American Morning" program. As the name suggests, a blowout preventer is a device that is supposed to clamp shut over a leaking wellhead.

In addition, Suttles said, BP is drilling a relief well to try to divert the flow onto another pipe.

"What we're going to do is keep developing options until we get this flow stopped," Suttles said.

The oil spill started April 20, after an explosion on the Deepwater Horizon drilling platform in the Gulf of Mexico.

Eleven oil rig workers remain missing and are presumed dead.

The rig sank April 22 about 50 miles (80 km) off the southeast coast of Louisiana, and the untapped wellhead is gushing about 5,000 barrels of oil a day into the Gulf of Mexico.

On Friday, BP lowered the massive containment vessel over the well to cap the larger of two leak points. But that plan was thwarted Saturday after ice-like hydrate crystals formed when gas combined with water blocked the top of the dome and made it buoyant.

BP has already built the smaller dome and it is already available, Suttles said Monday. That device would keep most of the water out at the beginning of the capping process and would allow engineers to pump in methanol to keep the hydrates from forming, Suttles said.

Methanol is a simple alcohol that can be used as an antifreeze.

The process of stopping the gusher with garbage is called a "junk shot" or a "top kill." Under that procedure, debris such as shredded up tires, golf balls and similar objects would be shot under extremely high pressure into the blowout preventer in an attempt to clog it and stop the leak.

Work also has begun on the relief well, Suttles said Monday.

"That started about a week ago," Suttles said. "That work continues. The well is at about 9,000 feet. About 5,000 feet of that is the water depth. Then the rest is drilling below the sea floor. We're slightly ahead of plan here. These are complex tasks, but we're making very good process."

President Barack Obama plans to meet with Cabinet members Monday afternoon to review BP's efforts and to review response efforts to the oil slick, the White House said Sunday.

Hundreds of thousands of feet of boom and large volumes of dispersants continued to be deployed in an effort to capture or break up the spilled oil moving toward the Gulf coastline. Thousands of workers and volunteers also have been skimming the water's surface.

National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration forecasters warned that the Mississippi Delta, Breton Sound, Chandeleur Islands and areas directly north could see oil hit the coast by Tuesday. And scientists are analyzing tar balls found on a beach on Dauphin Island, Alabama, to determine whether they were caused by the oil spill, Coast Guard spokesman Erik Swanson said.

The tar balls are "pieces of emulsified oil" shaped like pancakes, ranging in size from dimes to golf balls, but can sometimes occur naturally, Swanson said.

The U.S. Coast Guard had tallied six oiled birds that died since the slick formed last month, Swanson said Sunday, though the cause of death is still being determined. Four additional oiled birds have been cleaned, Swanson said.

The stakes are high for residents of coastal Louisiana who make their living from fishing in the Gulf of Mexico. Oil washed ashore Thursday on Louisiana's barrier islands and drifted west past the mouth of the Mississippi River.

The government has closed parts of the Gulf to fishing.

"It's killing everybody down here, everybody is more or less getting ulcers worrying about this, and it's something we experienced five years ago with (Hurricane) Katrina," charter boat owner Tom Becker told CNN Saturday.

Federal investigators are still trying determining what caused the explosion that sunk the Deepwater Horizon, which was owned by BP contractor Transocean Ltd.

BP is legally required to cover economic damages from the spill up to $75 million. But Florida Sen. Bill Nelson has introduced legislation that would raise the liability cap to $10 billion.

"If this gusher continues for several months, it's going to cover up the Gulf Coast and it's going to get down into the loop current and that's going to take it down the Florida Keys and up the east coast of Florida, and you are talking about massive economic loss to our tourism, our beaches, to our fisheries, very possibly disruption of our military testing and training," Nelson said Sunday on CNN's "State of the Union."

BP already has started to pay some fishermen for lost wages, Suttles said Monday.

"We're getting them checks," he said. "People go and make their claim and leave with a check. What we're trying to do is minimize the immediate impact. Longer term, I'm sure we'll have to work that out.

"We're moving swiftly to get these people who are predominantly displaced from working. Get them money so they can buy their groceries and we can offset the impact until we get this thing resolved."

Engineers are examining whether they can close a failed blowout preventer by stuffing it with trash, said Adm. Thad Allen, the commandant of the Coast Guard. The 48-foot-tall, 450-ton device sits atop the well at the heart of the Gulf oil spill and is designed to stop leaks, but it has not been working properly since the oil rig Deepwater Horizon exploded April 20 and later sank.

"The next tactic is going to be something they call a junk shot," Allen told CBS's "Face the Nation" on Sunday. "They'll take a bunch of debris -- shredded up tires, golf balls and things like that -- and under very high pressure, shoot it into the preventer itself and see if they can clog it up and stop the leak."

Oil company BP, the well's owner, had attempted to lower a four-story containment vessel over the well to cap the larger of the well's two leak points. But that plan was thwarted Saturday after ice-like hydrate crystals, formed when gas combined with water, blocked the top of the dome and made it buoyant.

BP said it has not abandoned the dome plan. But Doug Suttles, the company's chief operating officer, told reporters that officials are considering the "junk shot" along with other possible solutions.

Suttles said Saturday that trying to stuff shut the blowout preventer had not yet been attempted because of possible challenges and risks. And Allen said the approach had worked in the past, but never so deep beneath the water's surface.

"We're working at 5,000 feet of depth, which has never been done before," he said.

The dome was resting on the seabed Sunday while crews tried to find a way to deal with the crystals -- a process that could take two days, Suttles told reporters Saturday.

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Officials are considering heating the dome or adding methanol to dissolve the hydrates, he said. If the hydrate problem is resolved, BP hopes to connect the dome to a drill ship and to begin sucking oil from the containment dome.

President Obama plans to meet with Cabinet members Monday afternoon to review BP's efforts to stop the oil leak and to review response efforts to the oil slick, the White House said Sunday.

An estimated 210,000 gallons (5,000 barrels) of crude is pouring from the well every day. Hundreds of thousands of feet of boom and large volumes of dispersants continued to be deployed in an effort to capture or break up the spilled oil moving toward the Gulf coastline, and thousands of workers and volunteers worked to skim the water's surface.

National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration forecasters warned that the Mississippi Delta, Breton Sound, the Chandeleur Islands and areas directly north could see oil hit the coast by Tuesday, and significant winds could push oil west of the Mississippi River Delta by Monday. And scientists are analyzing tar balls found on a beach on Dauphin Island, Alabama, to determine whether they were caused by the oil spill, and Coast Guard spokesman Erik Swanson said.

The tar balls are "pieces of emulsified oil" shaped like pancakes, ranging in size from dimes to golf balls, but can sometimes occur naturally, Swanson said.

The U.S. Coast Guard has tallied six oiled birds that have died since the slick formed last month, Swanson said Sunday, though the cause of death is still being determined. Four additional oiled birds have been cleaned, Swanson said.

A college student in Waveland, Mississippi, e-mailed CNN pictures of thousands of dead fish she found washed up on the beach near her home Saturday. Sabrina Bradford, a student at the University of Mississippi, identified the fish as menhaden, which are often used as bait or as meal to feed farm-raised fish.

But William Hawkins, director of the Gulf Coast Research Laboratory at the University of Southern Mississippi, said the dead fish aren't necessarily a result of the oil slick. The fish could have died in a pocket of low-oxygen water or could have fallen out of a torn fishing net, he said.

The stakes are high for residents of coastal Louisiana who make their living by fishing in the Gulf. Oil washed ashore Thursday on Louisiana's barrier islands and drifted west past the mouth of the Mississippi River.

"It's killing everybody down here, everybody is more or less getting ulcers worrying about this, and it's something we experienced five years ago with [Hurricane] Katrina," charter-boat owner Tom Becker told CNN Saturday.

Federal investigators are still trying determining what caused the explosion that sank the Deepwater Horizon, owned by BP contractor Transocean Ltd. The explosion left 11 men presumed dead aboard the rig and caused the massive underwater gusher that the company and the federal government have been trying to cap since late April.

Suttles said Saturday that senior BP employees, including the company's vice president for drilling in the Gulf of Mexico, were on board the rig at the time of the explosion discussing its positive safety performance.

"This rig had an outstanding record," he said.

All six BP employees on board were among the 111 people who escaped from the burning rig, Suttles said.

BP is legally required to cover economic damages from the spill up to $75 million. But Florida Sen. Bill Nelson has introduced legislation that would raise the liability cap to $10 billion.

"If this gusher continues for several months, it's going to cover up the Gulf Coast and it's going to get down into the loop current and that's going to take it down the Florida Keys and up the east coast of Florida, and you are talking about massive economic loss to our tourism, our beaches, to our fisheries, very possibly disruption of our military testing and training," Nelson said Sunday on CNN's "State of the Union."

CNN's David Mattingly contributed to this report.

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