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For example, the Coast Guard has put an emphasis on skimming the heavy oil as close to the damaged well as possible, before it breaks into thousands of smaller, unpredictable slicks that meander with the weather and can elude or outpace skimmers as they are pushed to shore.

But if the oil flow was substantially reduced, about 15 offshore skimmers could start chasing ribbons of oil — sometimes as long as 60 miles — that spread away from the leak site, said Coast Guard Rear Adm. James Watson, who coordinates day-to-day oil spill operations.

Watson wasn’t ready to make any plans just yet.

“I’ve tempered my optimism over time with this spill,” he said.

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Associated Press writers Shelia Byrd in Jackson, Miss., Brian Skoloff in New Orleans, Harry R. Weber in Atlanta, Holbrook Mohr in Venice, La., and Raphael Satter in London contributed to this report.