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Top Kill's Success Uncertain

Oil giant BP says it won't know for another day or two whether its effort to stop the flow of oil in the Gulf of Mexico has succeeded. While the company works on a plan referred to as the “Top Kill,” oil continues to spread across the water and into fragile coastal areas. On Friday, President Obama got a first-hand look at the damage and said his administration will do whatever it takes to end the disaster. But an aerial view of the contaminated water shows what a challenge that is.


This is WEEKEND EDITION from NPR News. I'm Scott Simon.

BP says it won't know for another day or two whether it's effort to stop the flow of oil in the Gulf of Mexico has succeeded. The company works on a plan called top kill. While it does that, oil continues to spread into fragile coastal areas.

Yesterday, President Obama got a personal look at the damage and said his administration will do whatever it takes to end the disaster. But an aerial view of the water shows what a challenge that is, as NPR's Pam Fessler reports.

PAM FESSLER: When President Obama stood in the hot sun in Grand Isle, Louisiana, a town already hit hard by the spill, he stated an unfortunate truth. No matter what happens with the latest plan to plug the well, the cleanup has just begun.

President BARACK OBAMA: Because even if the leak was stopped today, it wouldn't change the fact that these waters still contain oil from what is now the largest spill in American history. And more of it will come ashore.

FESSLER: By the government's latest estimate, as many as 40 million gallons of oil have already poured into the Gulf, and the oil is spreading across the water in a patchwork of different forms, something quite evident from the air.

(Soundbite of aircraft)

Unidentified Man: (Unintelligible)

FESSLER: What's really interesting is about what you see here is that parts of the water look perfectly clean and clear. And then a short distance later, you can see these brown swirls in the water. It's a marbled look.

Lieutenant MICHAEL PATTERSON (U.S. Coast Guard): That's the emulsified oil that we're seeing.

FESSLER: Coast Guard Lieutenant Michael Patterson points to an irregular patch of reddish brown water below. He's giving us an aerial tour of the Gulf in an HC144 aircraft. The thick patches of oil can be seen here and there. But much of the water is covered with long, shiny strips floating along the surface.

Lt. PATTERSON: There you go, you see a little bit of the rainbow sheen. You can see how it's going on in ribbons there. Now, some of that is just normal wind shear, but that's obviously, you can see where the little bit of sheening(ph) is.

FESSLER: Patterson says it's the variability of the oil that makes the cleanup such an unprecedented challenge. It's not just the vast area affected, but the fact that the oil is taking so many shapes and forms - some of them scientists and other experts are still trying to determine, especially those below the surface. And where the spill goes and what happens next, says Patterson, is as predictable as the weather.

Lt. PATTERSON: What you're looking at there is the Enterprise.

FESSLER: He's talking about the large drilling ship BP is using to capture some of the oil and gas from the damaged wellhead. It's part of a package of rigs and vessels hovering below around the site of the accident. Two rigs are drilling relief wells, which BP says won't be able to seal the leak until late summer.

Another vessel is being used for the top kill, which involved pumping heavy drilling mud into the well in the hope of plugging it up. Surprisingly, some of the water here is deep blue. But as the aircraft turns, the shiny streaks come back into view. Patterson says the heavy oil can be skimmed from the surface, but...

Lt. PATTERSON: They really can't do much as far as skimming with the sheen because it's so thin, only millimeters thick. So that product is the product that'll get under the boom and will be difficult or impossible to collect with skimming.

FESSLER: Much of the surface oil will evaporate. But some will end up on shore. Protective booms can be seen around barrier islands and coves to capture what they can, but they're few and far between.

(Soundbite of aircraft)

Unidentified Man: (Unintelligible) Coast Guard 2307 (unintelligible).

FESSLER: President Obama said three million feet of boom have been deployed and he promised more. In the meantime, the damage continues to spread. Yesterday, the government expanded the area closed to fishing to 61,000 square miles, one quarter of the entire Gulf.

Pam Fessler, NPR News.

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