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Feds quell fears about BP well leaks

WASHINGTON - The federal government's oil spill chief said yesterday that five leaks in and around BP's Gulf of Mexico well are more like "drips," and aren't yet reason to worry. Retired Coast Guard Adm. Thad Allen also said seepage two miles from BP's oil cap is from another well, tamping down fears that leaks mean the ruptured well is unstable.

The leaks and seepage had raised concerns that the mechanical cap choking off the flow was displacing pressure and forcing oil out deep underground. That could make the sea floor unstable and make the 3-month-old disaster even harder to fix.

Allen said the well appears stable, and he extended testing of the experimental cap by another day, which means the oil will remain shut in.

The cap is buying time until a permanent plug is in place. Crews are drilling into the side of the ruptured well from deep underground, and by next week, they could start blasting in mud and cement to block the well for good. Killing the well deep underground works more reliably than bottling it up with a cap.

Allen also said he's considering whether to pump mud and cement through the well cap, smashing the oil in from two directions. The idea is similar to the failed top kill plan that couldn't overcome the pressure of the geyser pushing up.

BP and Allen said it could work now because there's less oil to fight against, and oil will also be coming in from the side. The seepage was detected over the weekend, and was the first sign of trouble after the cap was closed Thursday. But Allen said another well is to blame.

In another development, BP acknowledged it posted on its website an altered photo that exaggerates the activity at its oil spill command center in Houston. The picture posted over the weekend showed workers monitoring a bank of 10 giant video screens displaying underwater images. Spokesman Scott Dean said two screens were blank in the original picture and a staff photographer used Photoshop software to add images.

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