US & World

BP chairman blames failed equipment for spill

BP's Lamar McKay said he can't say when the blown-out well in the Gulf of Mexico might be plugged, but that the company is working on a mechanism to try to seal off the geyser of oil. President Obama was headed to the region Sunday as communities braced for the oil slick creeping toward U.S. shores from Louisiana to Florida.

The chairman of oil giant BP defended his company's record Sunday and blamed "a failed piece of equipment" for the massive oil spill edging ever closer to the Gulf Coast, where President Obama was headed to assess firsthand the growing crisis.

BP chief Lamar McKay, appearing on ABC's This Week, rejected allegations that cutbacks on safety measures played a role in the April 20 explosion on the Deepwater Horizon drilling rig and insisted his company is throwing every resource it has at plugging the leaks.

McKay said he can't say when the blown-out well a mile beneath the sea might be plugged, but that a dome that could be placed over it would be deployed in six to eight days. The dome has been made and workers are finishing the plan to get it deployed, he said, adding that BP officials are still working to activate a "blowout preventer" mechanism meant to seal off the geyser of oil.

"And as you can imagine, this is like doing open-heart surgery at 5,000 feet, with — in the dark, with robot-controlled submarines," McKay said.

The slick has tripled in recent days and is now roughly the size of Puerto Rico. It was about nine miles of the shore of Louisiana early Sunday.

The Obama administration, meanwhile, was ratcheting up pressure on the British oil company to fix the leaks.

"Our job basically is to keep the boot on the neck of British Petroleum to carry out the responsibilities they have both under the law and contractually to move forward and stop this spill," Interior Secretary Ken Salazar told CNN on Sunday.

Salazar also said on NBC's Meet the Press that it could take three months before workers attain what he calls the "ultimate solution" -- drilling a relief well more than 3 miles below the ocean floor.

Crews have had little success stemming the flow from the ruptured well on the sea floor off Louisiana or removing oil from the surface by skimming it, burning it or dispersing it with chemicals. Strong winds and rough waves have rendered a network of oil-catching booms largely ineffective.

The sheen has reached into precious shoreline habitat, raising fears that the ruptured well could be pouring more oil into the Gulf than the 200,000 gallons per day initially estimated.

Coast Guard Adm. Thad Allen said all options are being considered to minimize ecological and economic damage. "Trying to protect the wetlands and the resources of the United States when the oil is coming ashore is the last place we want to do this. We have to stop this oil where it’s emanating on the sea floor," he said.

Experts have warned that an uncontrolled gusher could create a nightmare scenario if the Gulf Stream current carries it toward the Atlantic.

Obama was expected to arrive in New Orleans on Sunday afternoon. The White House is trying to deflect criticism that it has been slow to react to what could become the largest crude oil spill in U.S. history, threatening beaches, fragile marshes and marine mammals, along with fishing grounds that are among the world's most productive.

The federal government says there are nearly 2,000 people involved in the response effort, with additional resources being mobilized as needed. But NPR's Debbie Elliott, reporting from Orange Beach, Ala., says there's growing frustration that BP and the government have not been aggressive enough in trying to contain the spill at sea.

Zack Carter of the South Bays Community Alliance in Mobile, says communities hit hard by Hurricane Katrina in 2004 were just starting to come back. "Now we're faced with this other pending disaster," he said. "We are asking that the federal government give us a full response this time."

NPR's Greg Allen said fishermen, charter boat captains, and others who make their living from the Gulf liken the approaching spill to a slow-motion hurricane. The difference, they say, is that this is a man-made disaster, and one from which many may never recover.

Allen said there was grave concern at a weekend news conference in Gulfport, Miss., that the scope of the leaks could become far worse if the bent pipe leading from the wellhead should fail.

"We now understand there's a third leak in the riser pipe. … If that rise pipe blows out, we're going from 5,000 barrels a day to somewhere in the neighborhood of 50 to 100,000 barrels a day," said Louie Miller of the Mississippi Sierra Club. Miller was referring to a National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration memo obtained this week by the Press-Register newspaper in Mobile about possible pipe failure, which would increase the amount of oil being released by tenfold or more.

The Coast Guard conceded Saturday that it was nearly impossible to know how much oil has already gushed since the rig exploded and sank off Louisiana's coast 12 days ago, killing 11 workers. The Guard had estimated the slick to be at least 1.6 million gallons — equivalent to about 2 1/2 Olympic-sized swimming pools. Other experts say they believe far more oil has been released in a spill many fear now may eclipse the 11 million gallons released by the Exxon Valdez.

BP has not said how much oil is beneath the Gulf seabed that Deepwater Horizon was tapping, but a company official, speaking on condition of anonymity because he was not authorized to discuss the volume of reserves, confirmed reports that it was tens of millions of barrels.

The Minerals Management Service ordered two oil and gas operators to stop production in the Gulf and another evacuated as a safety measure Saturday because of the growing slick.

The attorneys general from Alabama, Florida, Mississippi, Louisiana and Texas planned tol meet Sunday in Mobile, Ala., to discus legal options, strategies and preparations for the spill. Asked if the states may file lawsuits against BP and other firms, a spokeswoman for Florida Attorney General Bill McCollum said he is looking at all possibilities.

Lawyers for private plaintiffs including fishermen have filed at least 26 potential class action lawsuits so far. Copyright 2010 National Public Radio. To see more, visit