NEW ORLEANS // Hundreds of thousands of gallons of oil are being allowed to spew into the fouled waters of the Gulf of Mexico while BP engineers prepare to install a new containment system they hope will catch it all in the coming days. There's no guarantee for such a delicate operation nearly 1.5 kilometres below the water's surface, officials said, and the permanent fix of plugging the well from the bottom remains slated for mid-August.
"It's not just going to be, you put the cap on, it's done. It's not like putting a cap on a tube of toothpaste," the coast guard spokesman Capt James McPherson said. Robotic submarines removed the cap that had been placed on top of the leak in early June to collect the oil and send it to surface ships for collection or burning. BP aims to have the new, tighter cap in place as early as tomorrow and said that, as of Saturday night, the work was going according to plan.
If tests show it can withstand the pressure of the oil and is working, the Gulf region could get its most significant piece of good news since the April 20 explosion on the BP-leased Deepwater Horizon rig, which killed 11 workers. "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 BP senior vice president, of the round-the-clock operation.
It would be a temporary solution to the catastrophe that the federal government estimates has poured between 87 million and 172 million gallons of oil into the Gulf so far. Hope for permanently plugging the leak lies with two relief wells, the first of which should be finished by mid-August. With the cap removed early on Saturday afternoon, oil flowed freely into the water, collected only by the Q4000 surface vessel, with a capacity of about 378,000 gallons. That vessel should be joined on Sunday by the Helix Producer, which has more than double the Q4000's capacity.
But the lag could be long enough for as much as 19 million litres to gush into already fouled waters. Officials said a fleet of large skimmers was scraping oil from the surface above the well site. The process, which began on Saturday, has two major phases: removing equipment currently on top of the leak and installing new gear designed to fully contain the flow of oil.
Ultimately, BP wants to have four vessels collecting oil within two or three weeks of the new cap's installation. If the new cap does not work, BP is ready to place a backup, similar to the old one on, top of the leak. With the new cap and the new containment vessel, the system will be capable of capturing essentially all the leaking oil, officials said. The plan, which was accelerated to take advantage of a window of good weather lasting seven to 10 days, did not inspire confidence in the residents of the oil-slicked coast.
"I want to believe it and I'm going to take them at their word because it's good news," said Mayor Tony Kennon of Orange Beach, Alabama, on Saturday. But for the popular tourist destination, any halt to the leak comes too late to save the season, Mr Kennon said. Louisiana State University environmental sciences professor Ed Overton said he's less concerned with the strategy than with the unknown. As long as the cap is put on properly, the plan should work, he said.
"The problem is that almost everything they've done, there's been some unknown about it," he said. "I don't see why this is all that much different." * AP