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Interior secretary admits to lax drilling regulations

WASHINGTON - Grilled by skeptical lawmakers, Interior Secretary Ken Salazar acknowledged Tuesday that his agency had been lax in overseeing offshore drilling activities and that may have contributed to the disastrous oil spill in the Gulf of Mexico.

"There will be tremendous lessons to be learned here," he told a Senate panel in his first appearance before Congress since the April 20 blowout and explosion on the Deepwater Horizon rig.

His appearances before two of the three Senate panels holding hearings yesterday on the oil spill came as federal officials kept a wary eye on the growing dimensions of the problem. The government increased the area where fishing is shut down to 46,000 square miles, about 19 percent of federal waters. That's up from about 7 percent before.

Government scientists were anxiously surveying the Gulf to determine whether the oil had entered a powerful current that could take it to Florida and eventually up the East Coast. Tar balls that washed up on Key West were shipped to a Coast Guard laboratory in Connecticut to determine whether they came from the Gulf spill.

Coast Guard Adm. Thad Allen told the Senate Commerce Committee the growing size and scattershot nature of the oil spill was creating "severe challenges" in containing it and cleaning it up.

"What we're basically trying to do is protect the whole coast at one time," Allen said.

Underwater video released by BP PLC showed oil and gas erupting under pressure in large, dark clouds from its crippled blowout preventer safety device on the ocean floor. The five-minute clip apparently was recorded over the weekend by a remotely operated submarine.

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