Fi­nally, leak no longer gush­ing

75-ton cap shuts off flow; chance of a rup­ture will make next 2 days tense

Austin American-Statesman - - FRONT PAGE - By Colleen Long and Harry R. We­ber

NEW OR­LEANS — The oil has stopped. For now.

Af­ter 85 days and up to 184 mil­lion gal­lons, BP fi­nally gained con­trol over one of Amer­ica’s biggest en­vi­ron­men­tal catas­tro­phes Thurs­day by plac­ing a care­fully fit­ted cap over a run­away geyser that has been gush­ing crude into the Gulf of Mex­ico since the spring.

Though a tem­po­rary fix, the ac­com­plish­ment was greeted with hope, high ex­pec­ta­tions — and, in many cases along the be­lea­guered coast­line, dis­be­lief. From one Gulf Coast res­i­dent came this: “Hal­lelu­jah.” But from an­other: “I got to see it to be­lieve it.”

A tense two days still lay ahead of watch­ing to see whether the capped well will blow a new leak. If the cap holds, if the seafloor doesn’t crack and if the re­lief wells be­ing pre­pared are com­pleted suc­cess­fully, this could be the be­gin­ning of the end for the spill. But no one was declar­ing any fi­nal vic­tory yet.

The oil stopped flow­ing at 2:25 p.m. when the last of three valves in the 75-ton cap was slowly shut. That set ‘Spill­cam’ video shows that at 2:27 p.m., oil had stopped flow­ing from the Deep­wa­ter Hori­zon well af­ter an 18-foot-tall cap of pipes and valves was sealed. off a 48-hour watch pe­riod in which — much like the hours just af­ter a surgery — the pa­tient was in sta­ble, guarded con­di­tion and be­ing watched closely for com­pli­ca­tions.

“It’s a great sight,” said BP Chief Op­er­at­ing Of­fi­cer Doug Sut­tles, who urged cau­tion. The flow, he said, could re­sume. “It’s far from the fin­ish line. … It’s not the time to cel­e­brate.”

Nev­er­the­less, one com­fort­ing fact stood out: For the first time since an ex­plo­sion on the BP-leased Deep­wa­ter Hori­zon oil rig killed 11 work­ers April 20 and un­leashed the spill 5,000 feet be­neath the wa­ter’s sur­face, no oil was flow­ing into the Gulf.

Pres­i­dent Barack Obama called Thurs­day’s devel­op­ment “a pos­i­tive sign.” But Obama, whose po­lit­i­cal stand­ing has taken a hit be­cause of the spill and ac­cu­sa­tions of gov­ern-

ment in­ac­tion, cau­tioned that “we’re still in the test­ing phase.”

The worst-case sce­nario would be if the pres­sure of the oil, blocked by the cap, rup­tured the seafloor ir­repara­bly. Leaks deep in the well bore might also be found, which would mean that oil would con­tinue to flow into the Gulf. And there’s al­ways the pos­si­bil­ity of an­other ex­plo­sion, ei­ther from too much pres­sure or from some un­sta­ble piece of pip­ing.

Clos­ing the cap

The drama that un­folded qui­etly in the dark­ness of deep wa­ter Thurs­day was a com­bi­na­tion of trial, er­ror, technology and luck. It came af­ter weeks of re­peated at­tempts to stop the oil — ev­ery­thing from ro­bot­ics to dif­fer­ent cap­ping tech­niques to stuff­ing the hole with mud and golf balls.

The week lead­ing up to the moment in which the oil stopped was a se­ries of fit­ful starts and set­backs.

Robotic sub­marines work­ing deep in the ocean re­moved a busted piece of pipe last week­end, at which point oil flowed unim­peded into the wa­ter. That was fol­lowed by in­stal­la­tion of a con­nec­tor that sits atop the spew­ing well bore — and by Mon­day, the 75-ton metal cap, a stack of lines and valves, latched onto the busted well.

Af­ter that, en­gi­neers spent hours cre­at­ing a map of the rock un­der the seafloor to spot po­ten­tial dangers, such as gas pock­ets. They also shut down two ships col­lect­ing oil above the sea to get an ac­cu­rate read­ing on the pres­sure in the cap.

As the oil flowed up to the cap, in­creas­ing the pres­sure, two valves were shut off like light switches, and the third was di­aled down on a dim­mer switch un­til it, too, was choked off. And just like that, the oil stopped. It’s not clear yet whether the oil will re­main bot­tled in the cap or whether BP will need to use the new de­vice to fun­nel the crude into four ships on the sur­face.

For nearly two months, the world’s win­dow into the dis­as­ter has been through a bat­tery of BP cam­eras, known as the “spill­cam.” The con­stant stream of spew­ing oil be­came a fix­ture on cable TV news and Web feeds.

That made it all the more dra­matic Thurs­day when, sud­denly, it was no more.

On the video feed, the vi­o­lently churn­ing cloud of oil and gas com­ing out of a nar­row tube thinned, and ta­pered off. Sud­denly, there were a few puffs of oil, sur­rounded by cloudy dis­per­sant that BP was pump­ing on top. Then there was noth­ing.

“Fi­nally!” said Re­nee Brown, a school guid­ance coun­selor vis­it­ing Pen­sacola Beach, Fla., from London, Ky. “Hon­estly, I’m sur­prised that they haven’t been able to do some­thing sooner, though.”

Alabama Gov. Bob Ri­ley’s face lighted up when he heard the news. “I think a lot of prayers were an­swered to­day,” he said.

Tense 48 hours fol­lows

The next 48 hours are crit­i­cal. En­gi­neers and sci­en­tists will be mon­i­tor­ing the cap around the clock, look­ing for pres­sure changes.

High pres­sure is good be­cause it shows there’s only a sin­gle leak. Low pres­sure, be­low 6,000 pounds per square inch or so, could mean oil is ooz­ing out through more leaks far­ther down in the well.

The ini­tial pres­sure read­ings are in an am­bigu­ous range, and of­fi­cials will have to make a dif­fi­cult judg­ment call on whether to keep the well shut in or re­open it, ac­cord­ing to Tom Hunter, re­tired di­rec­tor of the San­dia Na­tional Lab­o­ra­to­ries and a mem­ber of the fed­eral govern­ment’s sci­en­tific team over­see­ing the test.

“If it were a lot higher, it would be an eas­ier de­ci­sion to make,” Hunter said.

Thad Allen, the re­tired Coast Guard ad­mi­ral over­see­ing the spill for the govern­ment, said of­fi­cials are de­cid­ing as they go along whether to re­lease oil into the wa­ter again. At the end of the 48-hour test, it’s pos­si­ble that oil will start to flow again — but, the­o­ret­i­cally, in a con­trolled man­ner.

When the test is com­plete, more seafloor map­ping will be done to de­tect any dam­age or deep-wa­ter leaks.

The saga has dev­as­tated BP, cost­ing it bil­lions in ev­ery­thing from cleanup to re­pair ef­forts to plung­ing stock prices. Though BP shares have edged up­ward, they shot higher Thurs­day in the last hour of trad­ing on Wall Street af­ter the com­pany an­nounced the oil had stopped. Shares rose $2.74, or 7.6 per­cent, to close at $38.92 — still well be­low the $60.48 they fetched be­fore the rig ex­plo­sion.

Joy, skep­ti­cism around Gulf

The Gulf Coast has been shaken eco­nom­i­cally, en­vi­ron­men­tally and psy­cho­log­i­cally by the hard­ships of the past three months. That un­ease was ev­i­dent in the wide spec­trum of re­ac­tions to news of the cap­ping.

“Hal­lelu­jah! That’s won­der­ful news,” Belinda Grif­fin, who owns a char­ter fish­ing lodge in Lafitte, La., said upon hear­ing the gusher had stopped. “Now if we can just fig­ure out what to do with all the oil that’s in the Gulf, we’ll be in good shape.”

The fish­ing in­dus­try in par­tic­u­lar has been buf­feted by fall­out from the spill. Sur­veys of oys­ter grounds in Louisiana showed ex­ten­sive deaths of the shell­fish. Large sec­tions of the Gulf Coast — which ac­counts for 60 to 70 per­cent of the oys­ters eaten in the United States — have been closed to har­vest­ing, which helps ex­plain why one oys­ter­man in Louisiana re­fused to ac­cept that progress was afoot.

Prove it, said Stephon LaFrance of Buras, La.

“I’ve been out of work since this hap­pened, right? And I ain’t never re­ceived noth­ing from BP since this oil spill hap­pened,” LaFrance said. “Like they say they stopped this oil leak. I think that’s a lie. I got to see it to be­lieve it.”

Ros­alie Lapey-rouse, who owns a gro­cery store and a shrimp­ing op­er­a­tion in Chau­vin, La., that cleans, boils and dis­trib­utes the catch, was shocked.

“It what?” she said in dis­be­lief. “It stopped?” she re­peated af­ter hear­ing the news.

“Oh, wow! That’s good,” she said, her face cloud­ing. “I’m think­ing they just stopped for a while. I don’t think it’s go­ing to last. They never could do noth­ing with it be­fore.”

Long af­ter the out-of-con­trol well is fi­nally plugged, oil could still be wash­ing up in marshes and on beaches as tar balls or disc-shaped pat­ties. The sheen will dis­solve over time, sci­en­tists say, and the slick will con­vert to an­other form.

There’s also fear that months from now, oil could move far west to Cor­pus Christi, or far­ther east and hitch a ride on the loop cur­rent, pos­si­bly show­ing up as tar balls in Mi­ami or North Carolina’s Outer Banks.

The Na­tional Oceanic and At­mo­spheric Ad­min­is­tra­tion is ex­pect­ing to track the oil in all its for­ma­tions for sev­eral months af­ter the well is killed, said Steve Lehmann, a sci­en­tific sup­port co­or­di­na­tor for the fed­eral agency.

Once the well stops ac­tively spew­ing oil, the slicks will rapidly weather and dis­ap­pear, pos­si­bly within a week, and NOAA will be­gin to rely more heav­ily on low-fly­ing air­craft to search for tar balls. Those can last for years, Lehmann said.

In Louisiana’s Plaque­m­ines Parish, the worst-hit area of the coast, fre­quent BP and govern­ment critic Billy Nungesser, the parish pres­i­dent, of­fered a word of cau­tion: This whole mess, he said, is far from over.

“We bet­ter not let our guard down,” Nungesser said. “We bet­ter not pull back the troops be­cause, as we know, there’s a lot of oil out there, on the sur­face, be­neath it. And I truly be­lieve that we’re go­ing to see oil com­ing ashore for the next cou­ple of years.”

Pa­trick Semansky

As news of the leak cut­off spread Thurs­day, a ma­chine that vac­u­ums oily wa­ter into tanks where it can be sep­a­rated was lifted onto the deck of the Pa­cific Re­spon­der skim­ming ves­sel.

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