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BP Says It’s Catching Some Oil, But Scientists Say Spill Could be Much Worse than Estimates

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It seems the Deepwater Horizon oil rig was not undergoing inspection as much as the federal Mineral and Management Services (MMS) said it should. The agency had mandated inspections once a month, but according to the Associated Press, that rarely happened. In fact, the frequency of the agency’s inspections of Deepwater Horizon also fell dramatically over the past five years.

The Associated Press has tried to ascertain how often MMS inspectors had visited Deepwater Horizon prior to last month’s explosion, but numbers from the agency keep changing. At first, officials said 83 inspections had been performed since the rig arrived in the Gulf 104 months ago, in September 2001. They then revised that number to 88. The number of more recent inspections also changed — from 26 to 48 in the 64 months since January 2005.

The Department of the Interior, which MMS is a part of, maintains that monthly inspections of offshore drilling rigs are an agency policy, though not required by regulation. In an email, David Dykes, chief of the agency’s office of safety management for the Gulf region told the Associated Press that MMS inspects rigs “at least once a month” when drilling is under way.

The numbers the Associated Press has been able to obtain do show that Deepwater Horizon underwent 40 inspections during its first 40 months in the Gulf. But in the 64 months leading up to the spill, 25 percent of monthly inspections were not performed. And that’s based on the most favorable set of numbers MMS provided.

The Deepwater Horizon drilling rig, which BP PLC leased from TransOcean LTD, exploded off the coast of Louisiana on April 20 and sank two days later. Eleven rig workers missing since the blast are presumed dead. The explosion also spawned a massive oil spill that now threatens much of the Gulf Coast. An estimated 5,000 barrels of oil -210,000 gallons – is gushing from the leaking well each day, though there are fears that the true amount is far higher.

BP has announced some success in containing the leak on the bottom of the ocean floor. According to The New York Times, on Sunday BP was able to insert a narrow tube into the damaged pipe sitting 5,000 feet below the ocean surface from which most of the oil is leaking. The mile-long pipe is now capturing some of the oil, and diverting it to a drill ship on the surface. However, the pipe is only trapping about 1,000 barrels of oil a day.

Also, it looks like the spill could be much worse than thought. Over the weekend, The New York Times reported that scientists aboard the research vessel Pelican had discovered giant plumes of oil deep in the Gulf of Mexico. One of these plumes was as large as 10 miles long, 3 miles wide and 300 feet thick. The size of the plumes indicate the oil well could be leaking as much as 80,000 barrels a day.

The plumes are depleting the oxygen dissolved in the gulf, and if oxygen levels fall too low, sea life near the plumes could be killed off.

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