Special Reports

BP begins ‘top kill’ efforts to plug leak (with photo galleries)

With the Coast Guard’s blessings, BP on Wednesday began trying to plug its catastrophic leak in the Gulf of Mexico using a “top kill’’ technique that could take up to Friday to finish.

It was the oil giant’s latest attempt to stem the gusher that has spewed at least seven million gallons into the gulf waters since the April 20 Deepwater Horizon rig explosion. The oil has yet to reach Florida but is oozing into Louisiana’s wetlands.

“It will be 24 hours before we know where or not this has been successful,” BP chief executive Tony Hayward reported at 6:30 p.m. Wednesday.

Live video feeds from 5,000 feet beneath the sea showed a muddy colored plume of oil gushing from the well even as they reported pumping mud into the gusher to overcome the flow of oil.

Earlier, the federal on-scene coordinator, Coast Guard Rear Adm. Mary Landry, gave approval to BP’s latest attempt to cap the well — the final authorization the oil company needed to start pumping heavy drilling mud and cement inside the breach.

Experts said the technique — injecting heavy drilling fluids through the blow out preventer on the seabed, down into the well — had never been attempted at a such a depth before.

In Fremont, Calif., President Barack Obama said “there are no guarantees’’ that plugging the well with densely packed mud to prevent any more oil from escaping. “If it’s successful,” he said, “it should greatly reduce or eliminate the flow of oil now streaming into the Gulf from the sea floor. And if it’s not, there are other approaches that may be viable.”

Meantime, the finger-pointing continued in Louisiana over the cause of the spill and the implications of the use of a chemical dispersant to break up the oil deep below the surface.

According to testimony at a hearing in Kenner, La., on Wednesday, company executives and top drill hands on the rig argued about how to proceed before a BP official made the decision to remove heavy drilling fluid from the well and replace it with lighter weight seawater that was unable to prevent gas from surging to the surface and exploding.

One employee was so mad, the rig’s chief mechanic Doug Brown testified, that he warned they’d be relying on the rig’s blowout preventer if they proceeded the way BP wanted.

“He pretty much grumbled, ‘Well, I guess that’s what we have those pinchers for, ’” Brown said of Jimmy Harrell, the top Transocean official on the rig. “Pinchers’’ was likely a reference to the shear rams in the blowout preventers, the ultimate safeguard against an explosion.

Brown said in sworn testimony on Wednesday that the BP official stood up during the meeting and said, “This is how it’s going to be.”

In other developments Wednesday:

n Florida fish and wildlife officials extended the shrimping season in Biscayne Bay until June 30 to offset any potential economic fallout from the oil spill, which has yet to reach the coast of Florida.

n Florida Democratic Sen. Bill Nelson declared himself hopeful that the ‘top kill’’ would take and said, if not, perhaps put the U.S. military in charge of solving the problem. American forces battled an oil spill in 1991, he noted, when Saddam Hussein loyalists unleashed crude on the Persian Gulf in Operation Desert Storm.

n The National Oceanic and Atmospheric Association expanded its fishing area in the Gulf of Mexico to match the Louisiana state waters, a seafood safety measure, now encompassing 54,096 square miles or about 23 percent of the gulf.

McClatchy reporters Lesley Clark and Marisa Taylor contributed to this report.

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