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Tube Siphons Some Gushing Oil

NEW ORLEANS - Engineers Sunday successfully threaded a mile-long tube into a section of the blown pipe that has been spewing thousands of gallons of oil a day into the Gulf of Mexico, marking a major step in corralling the massive spill.

The tube is siphoning oil gushing out of the well and sucking it up 5,000 feet to a tanker ship on the surface, said Kent Wells, senior vice president for exploration and production with BP, which owns the underground oil well. BP engineers should know by today or Tuesday how much of the oil is being captured, he said.

"So far, it's working extremely well," Wells said.

Engineers had been trying since Friday to remotely guide robot submersibles, positioned nearly a mile below the water's surface, to thread the pipe. Crews have been working round-the-clock to cap the well since the Deepwater Horizon rig exploded and sank about 50 miles off Louisiana's coast on April 20, killing 11 crewmembers and sparking an ecological emergency.

In the next week to 10 days, engineers plan to pump mud through valves in the blowout preventer, a massive device that sits on top of the well, Wells said. The mud will be used to jam up the oil flow and buy time so that workers can finish drilling a nearby reliefwell, he said. The relief well, which would alleviate pressure and permanently seal the leaks, is still several months from completion.

Plume free of surface slick

The insertion of the tube was the first successful attempt in three weeks to contain the spill. BP failed in an earlier attempt to plug the leak using a 40-foot-tall, 100-ton containment box. Since the explosion, the well has been spewing about 210,000 gallons a day, according to government estimates.

The first glimpses of an underwater plume of oil that is stretching from the well were released over the weekend by federally funded researchers. Though much attention has been focused on keeping the oil from coastlines, marine scientists and oceanographers have warned that the underwater crude can cause irrevocable damage to the Gulf's underwater ecosystem.

The plume stretches 10 to 15 miles southwest from the site of the damaged well and is about 5 miles wide, said Vernon Asper, a University of Southern Mississippi marine scientist who is helping to lead the research.

It is compact, much thicker than the oil on the surface and suspended about 3,000 feet below, he said. A deepwater current is dragging it deeper into the Gulf, he said. The underwater oil cloud is not connected to the surface slick - now the size of Delaware and Rhode Island combined.

"This plume is some of the heavier products of the oil that won't reach the surface," Asper said in a telephone interview with USA TODAY from aboard the R/V Pelican, a 116-foot research ship at the site of the spill. "We think this oil is going to stay down there."

The research trip was coordinated by the Mississippi-based National Institute for Undersea Science and Technology and funded by the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration, the federal agency leading the scientific analysis of the clean-up effort.

Last week, federal regulators approved the use of chemicals to break up the oil and keep it underwater, where bacteria can eat them up, BP spokesman John Crabtree said.

Currents a concern

Researchers are concerned about the role of currents in the coming weeks.

The underwater plume is about 124 miles from the loop current, the largest in the Gulf. The fast moving current could swing the oil cloud east toward Florida and Cuba and up the Eastern Seaboard, said Stephan Howden, an oceanographer at the University of Southern Mississippi. The current could also drag the plume up into shallower water, potentially impacting coral reefs and fisheries near Florida's coast, he said.

The crew of the Pelican mapped out the plume using a combination of underwater technologies, including light and electronic sensors that measure oxygen in the water, Asper said. They also collected water samples to be analyzed in labs when they return to shore, he said.

The underwater plume, invisible to satellite imagery or aerial photographs, can also get stirred up and tossed into shallower shores if a hurricane passes over it, said Mandy Joye, a marine sciences professor at the University of Georgia. The Gulf's hurricane season starts June 1.

"It is a good thing the oil is not damaging the coastline," Joye said. "But to say everything is fine because it's not hitting the coast is missing a very important part of this equation."

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