BP'S PLAN B'S: Officials with BP are back at the drawing board this week, after their plan to corral the Gulf of Mexico oil spill with a giant "containment dome" flopped. Workers successfully lowered the dome 5,000 feet deep to the leaking wellhead on Friday, but hit a snag when crystallized gas built up inside it, clogging pipes that were supposed to pump the oil up to the surface. That crystal-filled dome has now been cast aside as BP ponders other options — including a smaller dome known as a "top hat," or a "junk shot" of shredded tires, golf balls and other debris that might clog the leak. Officials had warned all along that the dome strategy was a long shot, and now seem to be "trying anything people can think of," an LSU environmental studies professor tells the AP. But with some 210,000 gallons of crude still gushing from the damaged well every day, many observers are growing more critical of BP's preparedness for such a spill. "There should be technology that's pre-existing and ready to deploy at the drop of a hat," says a former executive with Transocean, the company that was leasing the oil rig from BP when it exploded April 20. "It shouldn't have to be designed and fabricated now, from scratch." U.S. Interior Secretary Ken Salazar says his "own preliminary observations" are that BP and its partners, including Transocean and Halliburton, had made "some very major mistakes" both before and after the explosion. (Sources: Associated Press, Wall Street Journal, Los Angeles Times)
A TAR IS BORN: While BP continues struggling to stem the Gulf oil spill at its source, federal and local authorities are stepping up their efforts to keep oil from fouling shorelines along the Gulf Coast. Black "tar balls" (pictured) washed up in Louisiana and Alabama over the weekend, and while an LSU scientist studying them says they may not actually be oil, no one is taking any chances. The Army National Guard today will airlift sandbags to five locations along the Louisiana coast between Port Fouchon and the Jefferson Parish line, the AP reports, in hopes of blocking the encroaching oil slick where floating booms have largely failed. "We want to block it off to where the oil doesn't get into the marsh areas," a Louisiana official involved with the cleanup effort tells the AP. "What they're trying to do is just prevent. I know it's still east of here but they're just trying to do a little prevention." And in an attempt to safeguard the public from oil-contaminated seafood, the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration has expanded an area of the Gulf that's closed to fishing — raising the area covered from 6,814 square miles to 10,807 — with Louisiana officials extended that state's no-fishing zone west to Atchafalaya Bay. (Sources: AP, Mobile Press-Register)
COAL MINE DISASTER: At least 31 people are dead following a series of explosions in Russia's largest coal mine over the weekend, and another 59 people remain missing. The first blast occurred just before midnight on Saturday, when 359 workers were underground in Siberia's Raspadskaya mine, and was most likely caused by a buildup of methane gas — similar to the conditions that caused a deadly explosion at the Upper Big Branch coal mine in West Virginia last month. Most of the 359 miners were able to escape the Raspadskaya mine, however, with about 65 hospitalized. But after rescue workers began entering in search of more survivors, a second, more powerful explosion rocked the mine about 3.5 hours later, killing many of the rescuers. The bodies of 12 miners and rescuers were recovered Sunday, and another 19 bodies — all but one of them rescue workers — were found Monday. Emergency crews have now arrived from around Russia to ventilate the mine and rebuild mine shafts so rescue efforts can resume. As methane levels drop to tolerable levels, however, water is now flooding into the mine, and officials say rescuers have just 48 hours to reach 13 people who are believed to be in two locations that are flooding. The Raspadskaya mine is more than 1,600 feet deep and has 220 miles of subterranean tunnels, and produces more than 8 million tons of coal annually. (Sources: AP, New York Times)
INDONESIA EARTHQUAKE: A powerful earthquake struck the Indonesian province of Aceh on Sunday, causing panic in an area that was devastated by tsunamis following a much larger quake in December 2004. Sunday's magnitude-7.4 temblor occurred nearly 38 miles underground at 12:59 p.m. local time, according to the U.S. Geological Survey, triggering local tsunami warnings and sending frightened residents fleeing their houses for higher ground. The tsunami warning was soon lifted, and while there were no immediate reports of widespread damage or loss of life, the local response was no overreaction. At least 168,000 people died across Indonesia following the magnitude-9.3 quake that struck in 2004, splitting open the sea floor just to west of Aceh and causing severe devastation there. A magnitude-7.6 earthquake killed about 1,000 people last September in nearby Sumatra, and another 17 people died there when a magnitude-7.8 quake hit in early April. (Source: Sydney Morning Herald)
ECOLOGICAL RECESSION: The bailout of Greece may have temporarily eased worries about global economic stability, but what about ecological stability? According to a new report from the U.N. Convention on Biological Diversity, Mother Nature is quickly losing assets, and the domino effect could soon begin taking a toll on national economies as well. The third Global Biodiversity Outlook (GBO-3) warns that some ecosystems are dangerously close to reaching their "tipping points," after which they become drastically less useful to humans and much more difficult — in some cases even impossible — to rehabilitate. "The news is not good," says Ahmed Djoglaf, executive secretary of the Convention on Biological Diversity. "We continue to lose biodiversity at a rate never before seen in history — extinction rates may be up to 1,000 times higher than the historical background rate." Scientists already confirmed last month that world governments wouldn't meet their goal of stopping biodiversity loss by 2010, but the GBO-3 adds that none of the 21 other targets set at the same time are being met either, at least not at a global scale. Those targets include protecting at least 10 percent of Earth's ecological regions, controlling the spread of invasive species, and preventing international trade from pushing species into extinction. (Source: BBC News)
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Photo (oil slick in Gulf): Alex Brandon/AP
Photo (tar balls on Dauphin Island, Ala.): ZUMA Press
Photo (emergency workers near Raspadskaya mine): Sergey Ponomarev/AP
Photo (evacuees reacting to Aceh earthquake on May 9): Heri Juanda/AP
Photo (coral reef): National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration
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