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Experts see how-not-to book emerging from gulf oil spill cleanup

Cleanup and containment efforts continue at the Gulf of Mexico site of the oil spill following the Deepwater Horizon explosion.

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By David A. Fahrenthold and Joel Achenbach
Washington Post Staff Writer
Friday, June 18, 2010

The fight against the gulf oil spill is already writing lessons for future cleanups. Unfortunately for the gulf coast, outside experts say, many are lessons in what not to do.

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Since the Deepwater Horizon rig exploded April 20, outsiders watching the cleanup say, the federal government and BP have made key mistakes that delayed or distracted the effort to stop the spill. Some were probably inevitable: BP engineers and government officials were forced to improvise in the face of mounting disaster.

But other missteps -- seen with the calm and clarity of hindsight -- look as if they could have been avoided.

Officials used "dispersants" to break up the oil. But some experts think that those chemicals caused much of the oil to remain below the water's surface, out of reach of standard cleanup techniques. The first attempt to place a "dome" over the well failed because of a well-known problem called hydrate crystals. The government and BP repeatedly under-estimated the oil's flow, and BP was not ready to capture all of the oil being siphoned up from the well.

In all, it appears that the mistakes have made it harder to fight what President Obama has called a "war" on the oil.

"There have been days where we've actually recovered more oil through containment and recovery than what came out. I think there are probably days that we didn't," Coast Guard Admiral Thad W. Allen said Thursday, when asked whether the war on the oil was being won. "I don't think I could come up with a combination of win and loss days."

BP spokesman Toby Odone said Thursday that his company faced a daunting problem: a huge leak involving broken machinery at the crushing depth of 5,000 feet. But he said his company's response had been shaped by an official plan.

"We didn't know what state the blowout preventer was in, what state the well was in, what state the riser was in, so there's been a lot of learning," Odone said. "We've learned. I don't know if we've made mistakes. I think we've tried things and we've learned from that."

In response to a question about mistakes, Allen said in a statement Thursday night, "We have marshaled the largest response in our nation's history, and we have continued to adapt and evolve this response at every turn."

So far, statistics of the cleanup effort indicate, at best, mixed success. A flotilla of vessels have skimmed 21.9 million gallons of oily water from the gulf, and 5.2 million gallons have been burned.

BP has siphoned 202,000 barrels (8.5 million gallons) to the surface using a "cap" over the leak. That rate increased Wednesday, when a second specialized ship arrived to help with the task. Also, on Thursday Allen said a relief well, being drilled to plug the well far beneath the sea floor, was ahead of schedule.

But the oil is still spreading faster than it can be cleaned from beaches and marshes. On Thursday, the Coast Guard said oil was on about 72 miles across the Gulf Coast, up from 68 on Sunday.


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