Oil flows freely as BP removes cap
New dome could be operational within the week
NEW ORLEANS — Robotic submarines removed the cap from the gushing well in the Gulf of Mexico yesterday, beginning a period of at least two days when oil will flow freely into the sea.
It’s the first step in placing a tighter dome that is supposed to funnel more oil to collection ships on the surface a mile above. If all goes according to plan, the tandem of the tighter cap and the surface ships could keep all the oil from polluting the fragile gulf as soon as tomorrow.
“Over the next four to seven days, depending on how things go, we should get that sealing cap on. That’s our plan,’’ said Kent Wells, a
It would be only a temporary solution to the catastrophe unleashed by a drilling rig explosion nearly 12 weeks ago. It will not plug the busted well and it remains uncertain that it will succeed.
The oil is flowing mostly unabated into the water for about 48 hours — long enough for as much as 5 million gallons to gush out — until the new cap is installed.
The hope for a permanent solution remains with two relief wells intended to plug it completely far beneath the seafloor.
Engineers will now begin removing a bolted flange below the dome. The flange has to be taken off so another piece of equipment called a flange spool can go over the drill pipe, where the sealing cap will be connected.
The work could extend into today, Wells said, depending on how hard it is to pull off the flange. BP has a backup plan in case that doesn’t work: A piece of machinery will pry the top and the bottom of the flange apart.
On Friday, Coast Guard Admiral Thad Allen, who is heading the government’s response to the disaster, had said the cap could be in place by tomorrow. That’s still possible, given the timeline BP submitted to the federal government, but officials say it could take up to a week of tests before it’s clear whether the new cap is working.
The cap now in use was installed June 4, but because it had to be fitted over a jagged cut in the well pipe, it allows some crude to escape. The new cap — dubbed “Top Hat Number 10’’ — follows 80 days of failures to contain or plug the leak.
BP first tried a huge containment box also referred to as a top hat, but icelike crystals quickly clogged the contraption in the cold depths. Then it tried to shoot heavy drilling mud into the hole to hold down the flow so it could then insert a cement plug. After the so-called top kill, engineers tried a “junk shot’’ — using the undersea robots to try to stuff carefully selected golf balls and other debris to plug the leak. That also met failure.
The company is also working to hook up another containment ship called the Helix Producer to a different part of the leaking well. The ship, which will be capable of sucking up more than 1 million gallons a day when it is fully operating, should be working by today, Allen said.
The plan had originally been to change the cap and hook up the Helix Producer separately, but the favorable weather convinced officials the time was right for both operations. They have a window of seven to 10 days.
The government estimates that 1.5 million to 2.5 million gallons of oil a day are spewing from the well, and the existing cap is collecting about 1 million gallons of that. With the new cap and the new containment vessel, the system will be capable of capturing 2.5 million to 3.4 million gallons — essentially all the leaking oil, officials said.
In a response late Friday to Allen’s request for detailed plans, BP managing director Bob Dudley confirmed that the leak could be contained by tomorrow. But he said the company is prepared for possible problems and missteps that could push the installment of the cap back to Thursday.
In a separate development yesterday, a federal agency inspecting the gulf fishing catch said shrimp, grouper, tuna, and other seafood caught at the fringes of the oil spill are safe to eat.
To date, roughly 400 samples of commonly consumed species caught mostly in open waters — and some from closed areas — have been chemically tested by the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration. Officials say none so far has shown concerning levels of contaminants. Each sample represents multiple fish of the same species.
NOAA and the Food and Drug Administration began catching seafood species in the gulf within days of the April 20 rig explosion. The agency is mostly looking for polycyclic aromatic hydrocarbons, the most common carcinogenic components of crude oil.
The first line of defense in keeping tainted seafood from the market is the closing of about one-third of federal gulf waters to commercial fishing — roughly 80,000 square miles.
Seafood inspectors also have been trained to sniff out oily product. One fish sample has failed the smell test, but did not show concerning levels of contaminants, Kevin Griffis of the Commerce Department said Friday.
Still, Don Kraemer, who is leading the FDA’s gulf seafood safety efforts, said the government isn’t relying on testing alone. “The reason we have confidence in the seafood is not because of the testing, it’s because of the preventive measures that are in place,’’ such as fishing closures, he said.
The FDA issued guidance last month that encourages seafood processors to heighten precautions so they know the origin of their seafood.