BP Says 'Top Kill' Method Requires Patience

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BP says it could taken another day or two before engineers know whether their "top kill" approach to stopping the gusher in the Gulf has worked. NPR's Richard Harris talks with Michele Norris about the latest fix attempt.

MELISSA BLOCK, host:

From NPR News, this is ALL THINGS CONSIDERED. I'm Melissa Block.

MICHELE NORRIS, host:

And I'm Michele Norris.

BP says it's still working on a top kill technique to shut down the gushing well in the Gulf of Mexico. This morning, the company reported that they'd had some success. They've been pumping a dense mixture of clay and chemicals against the flow of oil and gas. But executives say they may not know before Sunday whether their efforts have succeeded.

Joining us for an update is NPR's Richard Harris. Richard, what can you tell us about the progress so far of stopping the blowout?

RICHARD HARRIS: Well, I wish I could tell you more, but BP is being actually very stingy with the information that they have in hand. They didn't even tell us yesterday that they'd actually stopped pumping mud for about 16 hours. I can tell you that it seems to be taking a lot longer than they said it would originally. Yet BP says it's still going according to plan. So I'm not sure exactly what that means. But on the morning TV programs, BP chief Tony Hayward said they did try something called a junk shot in addition to simply pumping mud down the hole.

NORRIS: Now, we've heard a lot about this so-called junk shot - interesting name. Now, remind us what exactly this is, and how it's supposed to work.

HARRIS: Well, if you've been watching the images on TV at all, you can see the mud, when they have put mud in, has just comes squirting right out the holes. And so clearly, just the mud itself isn't big enough to block up the orifices. The hope is that if you put bigger things down - or sort of a mixture of things that are different sizes along with the mud, those will jam up inside the blowout preventer, and also maybe even jam up in some of the holes where the mud's squirting out.

And so they did that this morning. I actually got a glimpse of a tiny piece of rubber that got stuck in one of those holes for a little while don't see it anymore, but that was the idea. It's really hard to tell, though, whether it's succeeding. As I look at the image right now, it looks like an awful lot of stuff is still coming out of those holes, but I can't tell if it's oil and gas or mud, or a mixture of both.

NORRIS: And you're looking at that image there on a computer screen. With this revised spill estimate - there were revised spill estimates that were released yesterday, we know that the catastrophe has put a lot more oil into the water than had previously been acknowledged. We can see what it's doing to the marshes and the beaches now. What is it doing to life underwater?

HARRIS: Well, as we've been hearing over the past couple of weeks, it appears that a fair amount of that oil is actually staying under the water. That sort of disproves the notion that oil always floats. This may partly be because it's getting sort of mixed up with the dispersants and able to dissolve a little bit in the water. I also talked to some fluid dynamics experts at the University of North Carolina, and they've showed that actually, if you make small enough oil particles, they can actually get trapped as they try to rise up through the ocean when they encounter denser layers of ocean water.

Also talked to scientists from the University of South Florida, who took a boat out earlier this week and found a substantial amount of hydrocarbons about 20 miles away from the blowout site. And so this is now the second one of these invisible plumes under water that's detected in the gulf. They think it may be six miles wide and 20 miles long. They can't really measure it with detail.

But I asked David Hollander, from the University of South Florida, what that could mean for the ocean's ecology. He said that depends on how concentrated the material turns out to be.

Professor DAVID HOLLANDER (Oceanography, University of South Florida): So, if the concentrations indeed are high enough, then you could have a toxic effect. And those would, of course, affect small organisms like plankton, but it could also affect very severely affect small larval fish.

HARRIS: And of course, larval fish are what feed the fisheries. So that would be of great concern to the fisheries in the years to come, in the gulf.

NORRIS: Richard, we've been hearing a lot about the well, that it isn't simply spilling oil, it's also spewing a lot of natural gas. What's that going to do to marine life?

HARRIS: Well, natural gas, or methane, does stay in the water for some time. There are marine bacteria that eat it. That's the good news. The bad news is the bacteria also eat a lot of oxygen in the process of doing that. And so it's actually quite possible that they could create new dead zones of low oxygen areas. That is being investigated right now.

NORRIS: Thank you, Richard. That's NPR's Richard Harris.

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