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BP Begins 'Top Kill' Maneuver To Try To Seal Oil Leak

BP engineers began a critical "top kill" maneuver to try to seal the blown-out Gulf of Mexico well Wednesday afternoon by injecting mud into a massive device on top of the breach.

The company confirmed that it had started the high-profile procedure shortly after Coast Guard Rear Adm. Mary Landry consulted with government scientists and gave her approval. The top kill, which involves pumping heavy mud into the gusher to plug it up and then sealing it with cement, has never been tried at a depth of 5,000 feet.

BP CEO Tony Hayward said the effort to plug the spill was going as planned, but it will be at least a day before it is known whether the procedure is successful. Hayward has given it a 60 percent to 70 percent chance of success, but the company has also been careful to warn that there are no guarantees.

An armada of oil-industry ships floated above the well site, 50 miles off the coast of Louisiana. Several of the vessels would be involved in pumping a big slug of mud down a pipe to the seafloor and through 3-inch lines that connect into the Deepwater Horizon rig's broken blowout preventer.

President Obama could get the results in person. He is expected to visit the Gulf on Friday to review efforts to halt the leaking crude, which from what scientists can tell from the underwater video seems to be growing significantly darker. That suggests heavier, more-polluting oil may be spewing from the blown-out well.

At least 7 million gallons of crude have spilled in the weeks since the Deepwater Horizon rig exploded April 20, fouling Gulf Coast marshland and coating birds and other wildlife. London-based BP initially said it might cut a live undersea feed of the gusher before it starts the top kill, but the company later said it would continue the feed during the attempt.

BP said in court documents on Tuesday that roughly half of the 25,000 claims it has received from Louisiana fishermen and shrimpers in compensation for lost revenue have been paid -- a total of $29 million.

Meanwhile, a memo sent to the House Subcommittee on Oversight Investigation on Tuesday presented highlights of BP's internal investigation into what caused the disaster -- including that rig workers continued drilling despite several warning signs that something might be wrong.

The first indication came at 51 minutes before the blast and a second at 41 minutes, according to the memo that Reps. Henry Waxman and Bart Stupak sent to panel members. The rig team then performed some tests and was "satisfied" with the results, so workers continued to drill.

A third warning sign came 18 minutes prior to the explosion, when drilling was halted, the memo stated.

"Further, BP's preliminary findings indicate that there were other events in the 24 hours before the explosion that require further inquiry," the memo read. "As early as 5:05 p.m., almost 5 hours before the explosion, an unexpected loss of fluid was observed in the riser pipe, suggesting that there were leaks in the annular preventer in the [blowout preventer]."

In a statement to investigators obtained by The Associated Press, an employee of rig owner Transocean said he overheard Transocean senior managers complain on the day of the accident that BP was "taking shortcuts." Truitt Crawford, a rig roustabout, said BP was replacing heavy drilling fluid with seawater in the well.

The seawater was being used in preparation for dropping a final blob of cement into the well as a temporary plug for the pipe. Workers had finished pumping the cement into the exploratory well to bolster and seal it against leaks until a later production phase.

Crawford said seawater would provide less weight to contain surging pressure from the ocean depths. A BP spokesman declined to comment on Crawford's comments.

The latest details come amid new hearings on Capitol Hill at which Rep. Doc Hastings (R-WA) cautioned against a move to ban offshore drilling in the wake of the Deepwater disaster. He urged members of the House Natural Resources Committee on Wednesday to recall when gasoline prices hit $4 a gallon last summer.

"The response from the public was clear: Produce more energy in America," Hastings said. "Turning our back on offshore energy production would be too costly in lost jobs, higher gas prices and increased dependence on foreign sources from nations that are hostile to our way of life."

Rep. George Miller (D-CA) compared the assurances offered by BP before the Deepwater disaster to the assurances provided by Exxon Mobil prior to the 1989 Alaska Exxon Valdez spill that such an accident was "highly unlikely."

"Do those words sound familiar? Yes," Miller said. "Highly unlikely that anything would go wrong on this drilling rig. These assurance aren't worth spit."

Also in Washington, acting Interior Department Inspector General Mary Kendall said a report this week that examined allegations of cozy ties between federal regulators and the oil industry began as a routine investigation. The report found that regulators at the Minerals Management Service, the agency that oversees offshore drilling, had accepted gifts and trips from oil and gas companies.

"Unfortunately, given the events of April 20 of this year, this report had become anything but routine, and I feel compelled to release it now," Kendall said.

She said her biggest concern is the ease with which MMS employees move between industry and government. While no specifics were included in the report, "we discovered that the individuals involved in the fraternizing and gift exchange -- both government and industry -- have often known one another since childhood," Kendall said.

NPR's Richard Harris contributed to this report

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