New cap fi­nally gets a go at chok­ing off spill

struck by fears of ‘ir­re­versible’ er­ror, govern­ment had de­layed pro­ce­dure

Austin American-Statesman - - FRONT PAGE - By Tom Breen and Harry R. We­ber

NEW OR­LEANS — BP al­layed last-minute govern­ment fears of mak­ing the Deep­wa­ter Hori­zon dis­as­ter worse and started try­ing Wed­nes­day to slowly choke off the flow of oil into the Gulf of Mex­ico in the hope of fi­nally stop­ping the leak.

Re­tired Coast Guard Adm. Thad Allen, the govern­ment’s point man on the dis­as­ter, said the govern­ment gave the goa­head af­ter care­fully re­view­ing the risks of the pro­ce­dure. The plan is a test of whether a new tem­po­rary well cap can with­stand the pres­sure and ul­ti­mately con­tain the oil.

“What we didn’t want to do is com­pound that prob­lem by mak­ing an ir­re­versible mis­take,” Allen said at the end of a 24-hour roller-coaster of hopes raised, hopes dashed and hopes raised again along the Gulf Coast.

The cap — a 75-ton metal stack of pipes and valves — was low­ered onto the well Mon­day in hopes of ei­ther bot­tling up the oil or cap­tur­ing and fun­nel­ing it all to the

Con­tin­ued from A sur­face. But be­fore BP could test the equip­ment, the govern­ment in­ter­vened be­cause of con­cerns about whether the buildup of pres­sure from the oil could rup­ture the walls of the well and make the leak worse.

“We sat long and hard about de­lay­ing the tests,” Allen said. He said that the pause was nec­es­sary in the in­ter­est of the pub­lic, the en­vi­ron­ment and safety, and that of­fi­cials were con­vinced the test could go for­ward.

If the cap works, it will en­able BP to stop the oil from gush­ing into the sea, ei­ther by hold­ing all the oil in­side the well like a stop­per or, if the pres­sure is too great, chan­nel­ing it through lines to as many as four col­lec­tion ships.

The test be­gan with BP shut­ting off pipes that were fun­nel­ing some of the oil to ships on the sur­face so the full force of the gusher went up into the cap. Then deep-sea ro­bots be­gan slowly clos­ing, one at a time, three open­ings in the cap that let oil pass through. Ul­ti­mately, the flow of crude will be blocked en­tirely. All along, en­gi­neers will be watch­ing pres­sure read­ings to see whether the well is in­tact. The first two valves shut off like a light switch, while the third works more like a dim­mer and takes longer to close off.

Dur­ing the test­ing a high pres­sure read­ing — above 6,000 pounds per square inch — would in­di­cate that the cas­ing is in­tact. A lower read­ing — 4,000 pounds per square inch or less — likely would mean oil and gas are es­cap­ing through breaks in the well pip­ing or through the seafloor.

Allen said that BP will monitor the re­sults ev­ery six hours and end the test af­ter 48 hours to eval­u­ate the find­ings.

The one-day de­lay came just when it looked as if the Gulf oil cri­sis was near an end. The holdup was met with dis­ap­point­ment on the Gulf Coast.

“This thing’s been go­ing on for so long now. It’s time to take a gam­ble,” said Mitch Jurisich, a third-gen­er­a­tion oys­ter farmer from Em­pire, La. “If it’s go­ing to blow the bot­tom of the ocean out, it’s just go­ing to blow the bot­tom out.”

White House spokesman Robert Gibbs said the govern­ment acted “out of an abun­dance of cau­tion to do no harm,” and added that he didn’t con­sider the de­lay to be “some gi­ant set­back.”

While the test­ing was on hold, oil con­tin­ued to spew nearly unim­peded into the wa­ter. Two ves­sels on the sur­face col­lected about 700,000 gal­lons on Tues­day, BP said. The govern­ment es­ti­mates 1.5 mil­lion to 2.5 mil­lion gal­lons are leak­ing ev­ery day.

BP also said it was halt­ing drilling for the du­ra­tion of the test on one of two re­lief wells that are in­tended to plug the gusher per­ma­nently from deep un­der­ground. The com­pany said it was stop­ping the drilling be­cause it was un­clear what ef­fect the test­ing of the cap could have on it. Work on the other re­lief well had al­ready halted ac­cord­ing to plan.

Be­fore BP got the go-ahead for the cap test, BP Chief Op­er­at­ing Of­fi­cer Doug Sut­tles urged Gulf Coast res­i­dents to be pa­tient.

“We’re go­ing to get this thing stopped as fast as we can,” he said. “If it is not in the next cou­ple of days with the test, we’ll do it with the re­lief wells.”

Tony Wood, di­rec­tor of the Na­tional Spill Con­trol School at Texas A&M-Cor­pus Christi, said the govern­ment’s cau­tion is pru­dent be­cause so much of the work be­ing con­tem­plated is un­charted ter­ri­tory.

Wood said trap­ping the erupt­ing oil in the cap could in­crease pres­sure in­side the cas­ing, or the pip­ing in­side the well, and could frac­ture it un­til it is leak­ing like a sieve.

That could make it im­pos­si­ble to plug the well, cre­at­ing leaks “from mul­ti­ple points on the seafloor,” Gibbs said at the White House.

The cau­tious ap­proach fol­lows a string of failed at­tempts by BP to con­tain the leak, in­clud­ing the use of a gi­ant con­crete-and-steel box that quickly be­came en­cased in ice-like crys­tals, a colos­sal siphon tube that trapped very lit­tle oil, and an ef­fort to jam the well by pump­ing in mud and shred­ded rub­ber.

As of Wed­nes­day, the 85th day of the dis­as­ter, be­tween 92 mil­lion and 182 mil­lion gal­lons of oil had spewed into the Gulf since the Deep­wa­ter Hori­zon rig leased by BP ex­ploded April 20, killing 11 work­ers.

BP PLc ViA As­so­ci­Ated Press

This im­age taken from video pro­vided by BP shows that oil has stopped flow­ing from the cen­ter valve dur­ing test­ing of the new 75-ton cap atop the site of the Deep­wa­ter Hori­zon oil spill in the Gulf of Mex­ico.

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