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BP tries to plug Gulf oil leak by force-feeding it drilling mud and cement

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Oil-soaked vegetation in Louisiana
Douglas Inkley, left, from the National Wildlife Federation, stands near oil-soaked vegetation on an island impacted by oil from the Deepwater Horizon oil spill in Barataria Bay just inside the coast of Louisiana, Tuesday, May 25, 2010
AP Photo

BP on Wednesday launched its latest bid to plug the gushing well in the Gulf of Mexico by force-feeding it heavy drilling mud, a manuever never before tried 5,000 feet underwater.

      The oil giant's chief executive earlier gave the procedure, known as a top kill, a 60 to 70 percent chance of working, and President Barack Obama cautioned Wednesday there were "no guarantees."

      BP spokesman Steve Rinehart said the company will pump mud for hours, and officials have indicated it may be a couple of days before they know whether the procedure is working. The top kill involves pumping enough mud into the gusher to overcome the flow of the well, and engineers plan to follow it up with cement to try to permanently seal the well.

      BP PLC was leasing the rig Deepwater Horizon when it exploded April 20, killing 11 workers and triggering the spill that has so far spewed at least 7 million gallons into the Gulf. Oil has begun coating birds and washing into Louisiana's delicate wetlands.

      Witness statements obtained by The Associated Press show senior managers complained BP was "taking shortcuts" the day of the explosion by replacing heavy drilling fluid with saltwater in the well that blew out.

      Truitt Crawford, a roustabout for drilling rig owner Transocean Ltd., told Coast Guard investigators about the complaints. The seawater, which would have provided less weight to contain surging pressure from the ocean depths, was being used to prepare for dropping a final blob of cement into the well.

      "I overheard upper management talking saying that BP was taking shortcuts by displacing the well with saltwater instead of mud without sealing the well with cement plugs, this is why it blew out," Crawford said in his statement. BP declined to comment.

Shoveling oil sludge
A worker shovels oil from the Deepwater Horizon oil spill off Fourchon Beach in Port Fourchon, La., Monday, May 24, 2010.
AP Photo/Patrick Semansky

      The statements show workers talked just minutes before the blowout about pressure problems in the well. At first, nobody seemed too worried: The chief mate for Transocean left two crew members to deal with the issue on their own.

      What began as a routine pressure problem, however, suddenly turned to panic. The workers called bosses to report a situation, with assistant driller Stephen Curtis telling one senior operator that the well was "coming in." Someone told well site leader Donald Vidrine that they were "getting mud back." The toolpusher, Jason Anderson, tried to shut down the well.

      It didn't work. Both Curtis and Anderson died in the explosion.       At a hearing in New Orleans on Wednesday, Douglas Brown, the Deepwater Horizon's chief mechanic, testified about what he described as a "skirmish" between someone he called the "company man" - a BP official - and three other employees during a meeting the day of the explosion.

      Brown said he didn't pay particular attention to what they were discussing because it did not involve his engine room duties. He later said he did not know the BP official's name.

Oil-covered pelican
An oil-soaked pelican takes flight on an island in Barataria Bay just inside the the coast of Louisiana, Sunday, May 23, 2010. The island, which is home to hundreds of brown pelican nests as well at terns, gulls and roseate spoonbills, is impacted by oil from the Deepwater Horizon Oil Spill.
Gerald Herbert/ASSOCIATED PRESS

      "The driller outlined what would be taking place, but the company man stood up and said 'We'll be having some changes to that,"' Brown testified. He said the three other workers initially disagreed but "the company man said 'This is how it's going to be."'       Frustration with BP and the federal government has only grown since then as efforts to stop the leak have failed.

      Obama prepared to head to the Gulf on Friday to review efforts to halt the oil that scientists said seems to be growing significantly darker, from what they can see in an underwater video. It suggests that heavier, more-polluting oil is spewing out.

      Bob Bea, an engineering professor at the University of California at Berkeley, said the procedure carries a high risk of failure because of the velocity at which the oil may be spewing.

      "I certainly pray that it works, because if it doesn't there's this long waiting time" before BP can dig relief wells that would cut off the flow, Bea said.

      ---

      Associated Press writers Mike Kunzelman in New Orleans, Jeff Donn in Boston, Ben Evans, Ben Feller, Fred Frommer and Erica Werner in Washington, Alan Sayre in Kenner, La., Curt Anderson in and Holbrook Mohr in Jackson, Miss., contributed to this story.       ---       Online:       http://globalwarming.house.gov/spillcam              (Copyright 2010 by The Associated Press.  All Rights Reserved.)