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End to gulf oil leak depends on turning off well

NEW ORLEANS - It could take hours or it could take months to stop a 42,000-gallon-a-day oil leak polluting the Gulf of Mexico at the site of a wrecked drilling platform. Whether the environmental threat grows many times bigger depends on whether the oil company can turn the well completely off.

Crews are using robot submarines to activate valves at the well head in hope of cutting off the leak, which threatens the Gulf Coast's ecosystem of shrimp, fish, birds and coral. The work will take 24 to 36 hours, Doug Suttles, chief operating officer for BP Exploration and Production, said yesterday.

"I should emphasize this is a highly complex operation being performed at 5,000 feet below the surface and it may not be successful," he said.

Oil continued to leak nearly a mile underwater at the site where the Deepwater Horizon rig exploded on Tuesday. Eleven workers are missing and presumed dead. For the second consecutive day, high waves prevented boats and equipment from going out to clean the spill. Airplanes sprayed chemicals to break up the oil.

The spill initially appeared to be easily manageable after the oil rig sank Thursday about 50 miles off the coast, but it has turned into a more serious environmental problem. The leak, discovered Saturday, is spewing as much as 1,000 barrels, or 42,000 gallons, of oil each day. The spill has been growing; officials said the oily sheen on the surface of the gulf covered about 600 square miles yesterday.

The damage would be especially serious if it reaches land. The spill was still about 70 miles from the mainland, but only about 30 miles from an important chain of barrier islands known as the Chandeleurs.

The islands, part of a national wildlife refuge, are a nesting ground for pelicans and other sea birds, under serious threat since Hurricane Katrina washed out much of the sand there.

"Katrina did kick it pretty good, but they have been growing back," said Greg Thornton, 52, owner of Horn Island and Due South Charters in Biloxi.

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