BP said Monday it was siphoning more than a fifth of the oil spewing into the Gulf of Mexico, but worries escalated about the ooze reaching a major ocean current that could carry it through the Florida Keys and up the East Coast.
BP chief operating officer Doug Suttles said Monday on NBC's "Today" that a mile-long tube was funneling a little more than 42,000 gallons of crude a day from a blown-out well into a tanker ship.
The company and the U.S. Coast Guard have estimated about 210,000 gallons are gushing out each day, though scientists who have studied video of the leak say it could be much bigger and even BP acknowledges there's no way to know for sure how much oil there is.
In the nearly a month since an oil rig called the Deepwater Horizon exploded off the coast of Louisiana, killing 11 workers, BP has made several failed attempts to stop the leak, trying in vain to activate emergency valves and lowering a 100-ton container that got clogged with icy crystals.
Chemicals being sprayed underwater are helping to disperse the oil and keep it from washing ashore in great quantities. But millions of gallons are already in the Gulf, and researchers said that in recent days they have discovered miles-long underwater plumes of oil that could poison and suffocate sea life across the food chain, with damage that could endure for a decade or more.
Tar balls have been sporadically washing up on beaches in several states, including Mississippi, where at least 60 have been found.
Engineers finally got the contraption to siphon the oil working Sunday after several setbacks. BP engineers remotely guiding robot submersibles had worked since Friday to place the tube into a 21-inch pipe nearly a mile below the sea.
Crews will slowly increase how much the tube is collecting over the next few days. They need to move slowly because they don't want too much frigid seawater entering the pipe, which could combine with gases to form the same ice-like crystals that doomed the previous containment effort.
As engineers worked to get a better handle on the spill, a researcher told The Associated Press that computer models show the oil may have already seeped into a powerful water stream known as the loop current, which could propel it into the Atlantic Ocean. A boat is being sent later this week to collect samples and learn more.
"This can't be passed off as 'it's not going to be a problem,"' said William Hogarth, dean of the University of South Florida's College of Marine Science. "This is a very sensitive area. We are concerned with what happens in the Florida Keys."
Hogarth said a computer model shows oil has already entered the loop current, while a second shows the oil is 3 miles from it -- still dangerously close. The models are based on weather, ocean current and spill data from the U.S. Navy and the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration, among other sources.
Hogarth said it's still too early to know what specific amounts of oil will make it to Florida, or what damage it might do to the sensitive Keys or beaches on Florida's Atlantic coast. He said claims by BP that the oil would be less damaging to the Keys after traveling over hundreds of miles from the spill site were not mollifying.
BP had previously said the tube, if successful, was expected to collect most of the oil gushing from the well. Officials still hope to collect most of it when the tube is working at full capacity.
Once it reaches the tanker, the oil is being separated from the natural gas and sea water. The natural gas is being burned off, while the crude is being sent to oil terminals.
Two setbacks over the weekend illustrate how delicate the effort is. Early Sunday, hours before a steady connection was made, engineers were able to suck a small amount of oil to the tanker, but the tube was dislodged. The previous day, equipment used to insert the tube into the gushing pipe at the ocean floor had to be hauled to the surface for readjustment.
The first chance to choke off the flow for good should come in about a week. Engineers plan to shoot heavy mud into the crippled blowout preventer on top of the well, then permanently entomb the leak in concrete. If that doesn't work, crews also can shoot golf balls and knotted rope into the nooks and crannies of the device to plug it, Wells said.
The final choice to end the leak is a relief well, but it is more than two months from completion.
Top officials in President Barack Obama's administration cautioned that the tube "is not a solution."
"We will not rest until BP permanently seals the wellhead, the spill is cleaned up, and the communities and natural resources of the Gulf Coast are restored and made whole," Secretary of Homeland Security Janet Napolitano and Secretary of the Interior Ken Salazar said in a joint statement.
Meanwhile, scientists warned of the effects of the oil that has already leaked into the Gulf.
Researchers have found more underwater plumes of oil than they can count from the well, said Samantha Joye, a professor of marine sciences at the University of Georgia.
The hazards of the plume are twofold. Joye said the oil itself can prove toxic to fish, while vast amounts of oxygen are also being sucked from the water by microbes that eat oil. Dispersants used to fight the oil are also food for the microbes, speeding up the oxygen depletion.