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

By Juliet Eilperin, David Fahrenthold and Alec MacGillis
Washington Post Staff Writer
Saturday, May 29, 2010; A01

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.

He reiterated his pledge to do everything in his power to stop the leak and repair the economic and environmental damage. With 20,000 workers in the region for the cleanup, he said he would triple that where oil is reaching shore.

"I'm here to tell you that you are not alone, you will not be abandoned, you will not be left behind," he said, flanked by three Gulf Coast governors. "The media may get tired of the story, but we will not. We will be on your side, and we will see this through."

Plumes of oil

In the discovery described Thursday, scientists aboard a University of South Florida research vessel found an area of dissolved oil east of the leak that is about six miles wide and extends down about 3,200 feet, professor David Hollander said. He added that the plume might have stretched more than 20 miles from the site of a leak. It has not reached Florida.

Cowan, the LSU professor, said he did not know how far west the plume he found stretched. His finding underscores concerns about oil moving under the surface, perhaps because of dispersant chemicals that have broken it up into smaller globules. BP officials have played down the possibility of undersea oil plumes.

That would be troubling, because it could mean that the oil would slip past coastal defenses including "containment booms" designed to stop it on the surface. Already, scientists and officials in Louisiana have reported finding thick oil washing ashore despite the presence of floating booms.

The U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service's official count of birds found dead stood at 444, with 63 injured. But local officials in Louisiana say they're seeing evidence in low flyovers of coastal marshes that the toll is worse than that.

"If you fly over, you see dead birds . . . that we never were able to rescue," said Robert Barham, the state's secretary of wildlife and fisheries. He said he saw dozens.

Barham said there is another toll: the eggs and chicks left behind when an "oiled" pelican is taken away to be cleaned. The oiled birds, he said, "can't feed or fly or take care of their young, and even if you catch one . . . you lose the young and the nest, because there's no way to know which nest that bird came off of."

Barham said he was also concerned about dispersants sinking the oil beneath the surface of the water. He said that has led to awful surprises in places like Barataria Bay, where "you can't detect it on the surface, and all of a sudden we'll have oil show up where we never expected it."

He said he had pressed BP for details about the dispersants: "Have not heard even a mumblin' word from them."

A team of Justice Department attorneys remains in Louisiana, where it has been monitoring the oil spill for the past month. The team is not conducting a criminal probe, and law officials said Friday night that it is unclear if the department will take either criminal or civil action.

In Washington, House Speaker Nancy Pelosi said Congress should consider eliminating any cap on the damages a company such as BP might face for harm caused by oil spills. Pelosi had previously voiced support for a proposal under consideration to raise the existing $75 million cap to $10 billion.

"There is a movement afoot in Congress for that. Why have a cap?" Pelosi (D-Calif.) said in an interview on Bloomberg Television's "Political Capital with Al Hunt," to air this weekend.

Divided on Obama

The responsibility faced by BP -- which says it has spent $930 million so far -- was also on the minds of two women who stood, guitars in hand, in a dirt lot on Grand Isle up the road from where Obama spoke. They sang: "Big oil, black gold. Power and money is the price of your soul. Oil drilling is making a killing. But we can change your mind. And it's a race against time."

Josephine Billups, 49, one of the singers, grew up in Louisiana and fished in the Gulf. "My question is, can BP ever repay these people for their lifestyle and culture?" she said.

On the drive into Grand Isle, divided sentiments about Obama were on display. Signs asking "Is it 2012 yet?" hung not far from where people clad in red, white and blue waved American flags.

"That sign says it all right there," Milo Young, 63, referring to a "2012" sign in front of his house next to two other signs: "Obama too little too late" and "Obama clean-up effort F-."

Less than a mile away, four people sat in the back of a pickup hoping to see Obama's motorcade. "I think he's trying," said Beverly Mallett, 74. "But if you see the oil and you know the destruction that might be coming, you can feel the disappointment the people have here. It's their way of life."

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