Oil spreading much farther than thought; Obama returns to Gulf Coast

Cleanup and containment efforts continue at the Gulf of Mexico site of the oil spill following the Deepwater Horizon explosion.
By Juliet Eilperin, David Fahrenthold and Alec MacGillis
Washington Post Staff Writer
Saturday, May 29, 2010

New evidence emerged Friday that the oil spewing into the Gulf of Mexico was spreading more broadly than previously thought as BP continued its fitful efforts to stop the worst oil spill in U.S. history and President Obama returned to the Gulf Coast to assess the damage.

A day after a research team reported finding a huge "plume" of oil extending miles east of the leaking BP well, another university scientist said his crew had located another vast plume of oily globs in the opposite direction, in a section of the gulf 75 miles northwest of where the Deepwater Horizon rig exploded on April 20.

James H. Cowan Jr., a professor at Louisiana State University, said his crew sent a remotely controlled submarine into the water, a section already closed to fishing, and found it full of oily globules, ranging from the size of a thumbnail to the size of a golf ball -- "like big, wet snowflakes, but they're brown and black and oily."

Unlike the plume found east of the leak -- in which the oil was so dissolved that contaminated water appeared clear -- Cowan said the oil at this site was so thick that it covered the lights on the submarine, which returned to the surface entirely black. The submarine traveled about 400 feet down, close to the sea floor, and found oil all the way down. Trying to find the edges of the plume, he said, the submarine traveled miles from side to side.

"We really never found either end of it," Cowan said.

BP continued its attempt to stop the leak with the "top kill" procedure -- pumping heavy drilling "mud" into the damaged well shaft -- amid questions about whether it was being forthcoming about the process.

In interviews Friday morning, BP officials apologized for not disclosing earlier that they had stopped the pumping procedure much of Thursday out of concern about the mud that was leaking back out. But they said the process was again showing signs of success along with "junk shot" injections into the wellhead of heavier material, such as rubber.

But later Friday, it emerged that BP stopped the pumping operation again at 2:30 local time on Friday morning. The pumping resumed after 3 p.m., Energy Secretary Steven Chu said.

On Friday evening, BP Chief Operating Officer Doug Suttles said that the operation was "basically going according to plan" and that it was "not unusual" for pumping periods to alternate with pauses for monitoring. The pumping will continue for another day or two, he said.

If the operation is successful, BP can then cap the well with cement. If it is not, BP will turn to other options, starting with a second attempt to place a containment cap that could collect oil while BP continues to dig a second well to relieve the leak.

"The key element here is to exercise patience," Suttles said. He said the attempt to skim oil from the water was going well, with 1,300 vessels at work and another million feet of boom on the way.

Obama's visit to the Gulf Coast -- a detour from his Memorial Day weekend visit home to Chicago -- was part of a concerted White House effort to push back against critics who have called the administration's response lacking. He visited a beach in Port Fourchon on Louisiana's southeastern coast, where tar balls are washing up, and attended a briefing at a Coast Guard station in Grand Isle, a small barrier island town south of New Orleans.

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