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Gulf oil spill: Smallest leak sealed off

May 5, 2010 |  7:22 am

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The smallest of the three oil leaks on the floor of the Gulf of Mexico has been sealed off by robot submarines -- a move that doesn't reduce the amount of oil spilling out, but one that should make the overall effort to plug the leak less difficult, a U.S. Coast Guard official said.

The small leak -- the one furthest from the well head --was sealed off with a valve sometime between 6 p.m. CDT Tuesday and 6 a.m. Wednesday morning, U.S. Coast Guard Petty Officer Brandon Blackwell said.

But the two more substantial leaks, which are farther down a collapsed riser, or pipe, that had originally connected the wellhead with the drilling rig, continue to gush oil, and the overall rate of the spill is likely the same. "It's kind of like a garden hose with three leaks in it -- you cut off this leak but you still have two more," Blackwell said.

The oil company BP has begun moving a 125-ton collection device, which resembles a big box, toward the site where the drilling rig Deepwater Horizon exploded April 20 and later sank, causing the massive leak. The company plans to lower the collection device over one of the two leaks, and have it in place by this weekend. If it is successful -- and the company has noted that no one has ever attempted this system at such a depth -- the collection device would funnel the oil into a riser that would carry the oil 5,000 feet to the surface, where it would be collected in a ship and a barge capable of storing 137,000 barrels of oil.

A collection device for the third leak is also under construction, said Marti Powers, a BP spokeswoman. That device could be in place within a week.

According to a press release Sunday on the website of the Joint Information Center, which is staffed by BP and federal officials, the system, if successful, could collect "as much as 85% of the oil rising from the seafloor." Powers could not say Wednesday if that figure referred to a scenario with one collection device in place, or both.

Officials have estimated that the leak is gushing oil at a rate of 5,000 barrels a day. But if things go badly, representatives for the companies worried that that figure could turn into 60,000 barrels a day, or 2.5 million gallons. Just four days at that rate would exceed the amount of oil spilled by the Exxon Valdez off Alaska, the worst spill in U.S. history.

--Richard Fausset

Photo: Oil can be seen less than a quarter mile off of the east side of the Chandeleur Islands, and also on the west side. Small patches of the oil has already hit parts of the land on Chandeleur Island. (Carolyn Cole / Los Angeles Times)

Photos: Oil spill spreads in the Gulf of Mexico

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