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Gulf spill eclipses Valdez

Photo by Petty Officer 3rd Class Ann Mari

Photo by Petty Officer 3rd Class Ann Mari

COVINGTON, La. -- As BP labored for a second day Thursday to choke off the leak at the bottom of the Gulf of Mexico, dire new government estimates showed the disaster has easily eclipsed the Exxon Valdez as the biggest oil spill in U.S. history.

The company announced late in the day that it had suspended shooting heavy drilling mud into the blown-out well 5,000 feet underwater around midnight Wednesday so it could bring in more materials. Thursday evening, BP PLC said it had resumed the pumping procedure known as a top kill. Officials said it could be late Friday or the weekend before the company knows if it has cut off the oil that has been flowing for five weeks.

As the world waited, President Barack Obama announced major new restrictions on drilling projects, and the head of the federal agency that regulates the industry resigned under pressure, becoming the highest-ranking political casualty of the crisis so far.

BP insisted the top kill was progressing as planned, though the company acknowledged drilling mud was escaping from the broken pipe along with the leaking crude.

''The fact that we had a bunch of mud going up the riser isn't ideal but it's not necessarily indicative of a problem,'' said spokesman Tom Mueller.

Early Thursday, officials said the process was going well, but later in the day they announced pumping had been suspended 16 hours earlier.

The top kill is the latest in a string of attempts to stop the oil that has been spewing since the drilling rig Deepwater Horizon exploded April 20. Eleven workers were killed.

If the procedure works, BP will inject cement into the well to seal it permanently. If it doesn't, the company has a number of backup plans. Either way, crews will continue to drill two relief wells, considered the only surefire way to stop the leak.

A top kill has never been attempted before so deep underwater. BP Chief Operating Officer Doug Suttles said the company is also considering shooting small, dense rubber balls or assorted junk such as golf balls and rubber scraps to stop up a crippled five-story piece of equipment known as a blowout preventer to keep the mud from escaping.

The stakes were higher than ever as public frustration over the spill grew and a team of government scientists said the oil has been flowing at a rate 2 1/2 to five times higher than what BP and the Coast Guard previously estimated.

Two teams of scientists calculated the well has been spewing between 504,000 and more than a million gallons a day. Even using the most conservative estimate, that means about 18 million gallons have spilled so far. In the worst-case scenario, 39 million gallons have leaked.

That larger figure would be nearly four times the size of the Exxon Valdez disaster, in which a tanker ran aground in Alaska in 1989, spilling nearly 11 million gallons.