"Top kill" plan approved to stop Gulf oil spill

BILOXI — Federal engineers appear to have given a thumbs up to BP’s plan to use a complicated method called “top kill” to block the oil well gushing in the Gulf.

A BP spokesman said Wednesday workers could begin the procedure as early as next week.

The top kill would shoot heavy mud into crippled equipment on top of the well to stem the flow of oil and gas. The company’s engineers hope to follow the mud with cement to permanently keep down the oil.

The procedure would begin with a “junk shot,” which involves shooting knotted rope, pieces of tires and golf balls into the blowout preventer, hoping the stuff will lodge in the nooks and crannies of the device to plug it.

Doug Suttles with BP said the company still needs diagnostic information to assess the risk before it uses top kill, taking into consideration the condition of the well. If the procedure fails, there’s a risk the leak could worsen.

“From data we have right now we don’t believe there’s an issue,” Suttles said. “We haven’t made the final decision.”

Key is how much pressure the blowout-preventer stack can handle, he said. The blowout preventer is a three-chambered valve on top of the well head, sitting on the bottom of the Gulf.

“We have to remember it’s all being done at a depth of 5,000 feet,” he said. “This has never been done before.”

At a news conference from the spill command center in Louisiana, Lars Herbst, regional director of the Minerals Management Service, called the procedure “a very complex operation” and said he had returned Wednesday from a meeting on top kill with MMS engineers in Houston. He said MMS is still reviewing it.

But he referred to it as “the procedure that BP is going to try” and confirmed the company expects to start early next week.

Much to clean upCoast Guard Rear Adm. Mary Landry said, “We’re absolutely holding out hope that top kill works.”But even if it does, she said, there still will be a great deal of work to be done in response to the crude oil that has already leaked into the Gulf.

She assured those at the news conference there will be people working the spill long after national attention is turned elsewhere.

Officials at the response center said recent good weather enabled crews to skim 600,000 gallons of oily water and conduct four burns on the surface, one lasting more than two hours.A hose inserted into the damaged well pipe is siphoning 3,000 barrels of oil and 14 million cubic feet of gas a day, almost half of what the company estimates is coming out of the well, and two relief wells are being drilled.

Suttles said BP is considering other oil-fighting options, including a device from actor Kevin Costner’s company that separates oil from water.

Sludge invades marshesBut bad news came from Louisiana, where brown mousse-like oil began coming ashore at Pass A Loutre, freshwater wetlands at the southeastern tip of the state where the mouth of the Mississippi River enters the Gulf.

Gov. Bobby Jindal stepped up calls for building emergency sand barriers, which would be easier to clean than the sensitive marshes.

Jindal, sitting at the edge of an airboat, swept a handheld fishing net through the mess and held it up. It was coated with brown sludge, which had stained the lower shafts of the leafy green reeds growing up to eight feet out of the water.

Tar balls found along GulfTar balls reported from Texas to the Florida Keys are being tested, especially if they are soft and tacky, to see if they are from the spill.

Tests on those from the Florida Keys found they were not from the Gulf spill. And aerial surveys Wednesday showed little progress in a scenario that had officials concerned the spill might slip into the Gulf loop current and reach Florida by the weekend.

A spokesman from the Mobile incident command center, which oversees Mississippi shores, said Wednesday teams have cleaned tar balls from Mississippi, Alabama and the Florida Panhandle.

Only those from Dauphin Island last week have been confirmed to have the same chemical fingerprint as the oil from the spill.He said those found in areas closer to Louisiana are more likely to be spill-related.

The Mobile command center’s tar-ball map showed they have been found across the Mississippi Coast.On Monday, 81 hard chunks of tar and two soft chunks were found on the beaches of Biloxi; and 70 hard and 12 soft on East and West Ship islands. On Tuesday, 25 were found on Cat Island; two were soft and sent off for testing.

NOAA is most likely to test those that are newer and gooey, he said.

Oily birds, turtleA completely oiled pelican was found in Bayou La Batre, Ala., and taken to an animal rehabilitation center in Theodore, Ala., for cleanup.

It was the second bird for the center. The first was a Royal Tern found oiled on Horn Island.

A young Kemp’s Ridley sea turtle covered with oil was rescued 33 miles offshore and taken to Audubon Aquarium’s Aquatic Center in New Orleans. It was the first turtle confirmed to be injured by the oil spill.

On Wednesday, environmental groups asked the federal government to take over from BP the task of monitoring and testing related to the Gulf spill, hoping to make information more open to public scrutiny.And the Obama administration moved to abolish the MMS as it exists now, splitting it into three separate entities. The plan by Interior Secretary Ken Salazar would replace the agency that oversees offshore drilling with two bureaus and a revenue-collection office. The name Minerals Management Service would no longer exist, a spokeswoman said.

Members of Congress and the president have criticized what they call the cozy relationship between regulators and oil companies. The MMS both regulates the industry and collects billions in royalties from it.The Associated Press contributed to this report.