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Gulf of Mexico oil spill: How bad is it?

The oil spill that resulted from the explosion and sinking of an oil rig in the Gulf of Mexico last week is becoming more worrying as it continues to spread and efforts at stemming the flow of the leaking oil are being met with difficulties.

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Initially, emergency responders didn't think that any oil was leaking out of the well on the ocean floor some 5,000 feet (1,524 meters) below the ocean surface, a distance roughly equivalent to five Eiffel Towers. A valve is supposed to automatically seal off the well to prevent any leakage. Over the weekend, officials realized that the valve had not activated and that oil was indeed leaking from the circuitous set of pipes that led from the well to the rig.

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"There's still flow there coming from the well head. The well head is supplying the leaking oil. It's coming up from the well head, going out into the drill pipe and into the riser. It's coming out of [a] kink or a bend in the riser," said Coast Guard Petty Officer Connie Terrell, who is currently working for the Deepwater Horizon Response Joint Information Center. The riser is a protective covering around the drill pipe that also connects the pipe to the drilling rig.

The kink or bend in the riser probably occurred when the rig went down, because it is attached to the rig, said Paul Bommer, a petrogeologist at University of Texas at Austin.

Why can't they plug the leak? 

To plug the leak, Remotely Operated Vehicles (ROVs) have been deployed to try to trigger the blowout preventer (BOP), a valve that, when activated, would secure the leak, Terrell explained. The valve is located at the well head on the ocean floor.

"Right now, what the ROVs are doing is pumping a hydraulic fluid into the blowout preventer, in hopes to build pressure [to] close the hydraulic valve," Terrell told LiveScience. "The valve is supposed to work automatically, so now we're trying to come up with different ways to activate the blowout preventer manually."

The BOP's malfunction in this case — something that Terrell said is uncommon — will be part of ongoing investigations into the incident.

The ROV robot subs, manufactured by a company called Oceaneering, have been an integral part of the effort to control the leaking oil.

"The ROVs are our eyes and our hands down there," Terrell said. "We can't just go down 5,000 feet and work in that environment. So, they are definitely playing the biggest role."

The ROVs are controlled by personnel on land. So far, their attempts to activate the shut-off valve have been unsuccessful.

"We've been trying for several days to activate it," Terrell said. "Nothing we've been doing has been successful in securing the leak so far."

Engineers around the world are working together with BP to devise other ways to activate the valve and contain the leak.

What other ways are they trying to stop the oil from leaking? 

In addition to using ROVs to try to plug the leak, BP announced on Tuesday that they plan to begin drilling a separate relief well to redirect some of the leaking oil.

According to news reports, this $100 million operation will take pressure off the blown-out well, and BP plans to begin drilling Thursday regardless of whether the response team reaches the valve at the well's head to shut off the leaking oil.

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