OFFSHORE DRILLING:

Crews to ignite gulf oil slick later today

BP Exploration and Production crews were expected to ignite the oil slick in the Gulf of Mexico today in an attempt to prevent crude from washing ashore, or at least limit the environmental damage. But officials said it was likely that some oil will reach land.

Rear Adm. Mary Landry, who is in charge of the response, said today that she had approved BP's plan to burn the oil. BP Chief Operating Officer Doug Suttles said at a 4 p.m. news conference that the igniting was delayed from this morning but was expected to begin at any time.

"This is a very serious situation," Landry said. "I must continue to examine all the tools BP has at its disposal."

Landry stressed that the flames from the burn will not be "on the same size or scale" as the fire that raged for days after the explosion on the Deepwater Horizon last week. The rig later sank, dousing the fire, but allowing oil to spew out from the well from the sea floor, nearly 1 mile below the surface.

National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration official Charles Henry said the agency expects the slick to reach the edge of the Mississippi Delta by Friday evening. Agency officials generally decline to make predictions more than three days out, but he noted that NOAA expects the winds to continue from the Southeast, which would continue to push the oil into the delta.

Suttles said BP is working on a system that will funnel oil to the surface to be collected by a ship. Workers have finished the containment chamber, and the company has picked a ship. But it will still take two to four weeks to finish preparations and deploy the system, he said.

In Washington today, Senate Commerce Chairman Jay Rockefeller (D-W.Va.) said he is planning hearings on the spill. Also, Interior Secretary Ken Salazar is expected to appear May 6 before the Senate Energy and Natural Resources Committee, where he will likely be asked about the spill. "I know I plan to ask him about it," said Chairman Jeff Bingaman (D-N.M.).

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