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Engineers stymied on how to stop surging Gulf of Mexico oil spill

BILOXI, Miss. — Nineteen days after oil started spewing into the Gulf of Mexico, experts appeared Sunday to have no certain plan for sealing anytime soon a runaway well 5,000 feet below the gulf's surface.

What had been thought to be the best immediate solution to contain the leak, a 78-ton steel and concrete box known as a cofferdam that took two weeks to build, rested useless on the seafloor, and the gulf's fragile ecosystem seemed to be facing if not the worst case scenario, then one that was certainly very bad — an outpouring of oil that will go on for perhaps three more months before a relief well can intercept the leaking one and seal it.

A top Coast Guard official suggested that experts might try to cork one of the two existing leaks by stuffing shredded tires, golf balls and other debris into the well's failed blowout preventer. But it was uncertain how seriously that option was being considered; executives of BP, the leaking well's owner, said earlier in the week that such a move could make things worse by damaging whatever part of the blowout preventer was still working.

For now, making the cofferdam work is the priority, said Mark Proegler, a BP spokesman at a command center in Robert, La.

"I have every confidence we'll find a good temporary solution," Proegler said, while acknowledging that he could not give a time frame for when another solution could be in place. "We certainly have every hope and prayer that we find a solution as soon as possible to mitigate the oil flow."

Eleven people died in the April 20 explosion that wracked the offshore drilling rig Deepwater Horizon and set off the massive leak. In the weeks since, drifting oil has formed a blob three times the size of Rhode Island and spurred frenzied preparations from Louisiana to Florida to protect ecologically fragile marshlands and economically important tourist destinations.

Those preparations continued apace on Sunday, as forecasts from the National Oceanographic and Atmospheric Administration predicted winds would continue blowing the slick west, possibly pushing the oil along the Louisiana shoreline between Timbalier and Barataria bays on Monday and as far west as Point Au Fer Island by Wednesday.

Nineteen ships were plying the gulf, skimming oil from the surface, and the Coast Guard reported that it had recovered 91,000 barrels of an oil-water mix — about 10 percent of which is oil — from the spill.

About 928,000 feet of anti-oil booms have been strung across sensitive areas, and another 1.3 million feet are ready to be put in place, BP said.

Aerial surveys showed that the oil was still at least 20 miles from Mississippi's barrier islands, but that it had arrived at Louisiana's Chandeleur Islands, where officials on Friday closed the Breton National Wildlife Refuge so that cleanup and rescue operations for nesting seabirds could go forward.

Linda St. Martin, who is helping the Sierra Club coordinate its oil spill responders task force, said she was in the Chandeleur Islands to survey the oil spill there and the stench was hard to handle.

"It's ugly and it stinks," she said.

Tar balls started washing up Saturday along Dauphin Island in Alabama.

The slick is "slowly drifting a little west across the mouth of the Mississippi River," Coast Guard Commandant Adm. Thad Allen, who President Barack Obama appointed to oversee the cleanup effort, said Sunday morning on CBS's Face the Nation. "But depending on which way the wind blows, it could threaten Mississippi, Alabama and Florida as well."

In Mobile Bay, authorities were constructing a "containment gate made with a deep water boom'' to help protect the water there, Allen said.

It was Allen who raised the possibility of using shredded tires and golf balls and other debris to help plug the gusher. He called the strategy a "junk shot," designed to plug the blowout preventer — the safety mechanism that should have sealed off the well after the April 20 explosion.

"They're actually going to 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," Allen said.

"I think I hear an experiment," said Robert Bea, an engineering professor at the University of California at Berkeley and oil pipeline expert who spent 18 years with Shell Oil. "They are pulling every trick known to bring this thing under control."

On Saturday, BP's chief operating officer, Doug Suttles, said the process of injecting junk into the blowout preventer had "certain issues and challenges and risks with it."

On Sunday, Proegler said only that the strategy was "another back up option. Subsea, we're continuing to evaluate ways to overcome the challenges we encountered."

He said there was no way to estimate when the leak would be contained.

"We're trying to move as expeditiously as possible, but as safely as possible,"

Proegler said. "We have every resource devoted to do this as quickly and safely as possible."

Proegler said no time has been set for another attempt to place the cofferdam. Also described as a containment dome, the cofferdam was supposed to slip over the larger of two leaks and sink into the seafloor's mud to form a watertight seal. Then the oil that collected inside the cofferdam was to be pumped to the surface.

The plan failed when slush-like hydrates that form in the low temperatures and high pressures deep in the ocean gathered in the cofferdam. The hydrates clogged the pipes and also made the giant structure too buoyant to settle tightly into the sea bottom. Engineers on Saturday moved the cofferdam some 600 feet from the well and said they would take 48 hours to evaluate their options.

The respite was being used by BP's technical team in Houston to consult outside experts. Possible solutions include finding better ways to heat the dome or injecting methanol to the keep the hydrates from forming.

Other options include trying to place a second blowout preventer on top of the broken one. They may also use a second, differently shaped cofferdam that also has been manufactured.

Officials say they have no way of saying exactly how much oil is spewing into the waters, but they have said about 210,000 gallons are pouring in each day. At that rate, the total that has leaked since the Deepwater Horizon sank two days after the explosion is more than 3.5 million gallons — still less than the 11 million gallons of crude dumped into Prince William Sound when the Exxon Valdez went aground in Alaska in 1989.

(Lebovich and Isensee, of the Miami Herald, reported from Miami. Newsome, of the Sun Herald, reported from Biloxi, Miss. Miami Herald reporter Marc Caputo contributed from Tallahassee and McClatchy correspondent Lesley Clark contributed from Washington.)


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For full McClatchy oil spill coverage, click here.

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