By Steven Mufson and Joel Achenbach
Washington Post Staff Writers
Monday, May 17, 2010; A01
In the first progress in containing the oil gushing from a blown-out well at the bottom of the Gulf of Mexico, BP engineers on Sunday inserted a tube into a leaking pipe and began siphoning some of the oil to a drilling rig at the surface.
The deep-sea plumbing did not do anything to close the well, and a substantial amount of oil continues to leak at the bottom of the gulf, but the day's efforts were a rare bulletin of good news about 3 1/2 weeks into the crisis.
On Sunday, a four-inch-wide pipe was inserted into the broken section known as the riser, from which the majority of the oil has been leaking. If it works, the inserted pipe could keep a substantial amount of the oil out of the sea by siphoning it up a mile-long pipe to the Discoverer Enterprise drillship and then to nearby barges.
"So far it's working extremely well," said Kent Wells, senior vice president for exploration and production at BP.
But the race against time continued. The National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration warned over the weekend that plumes of oil already spilled and suspended beneath the water surface might, as soon as Tuesday night, start to get picked up by the powerful "loop current." The current could carry the oil to the Florida Keys and beyond, scientists fear.
Moreover, BP said that to completely stop the oil from flowing into the gulf, it would have to plug the damaged well at the top. The company said it will try to do this in the next 10 days or wait weeks for a relief well to be complete.
Wells called the insertion tube, which functions like a straw, a "positive step forward." He said the company has been able to flare, or burn, some of the natural gas at the surface, an indication that the insertion pipe is working.
But he said it would not be clear for another day or two how much of the oil can be captured. At least some oil will continue to leak into the water, adding to a slick that stretches more than 80 miles wide and more than 140 miles long.
"As of now there are still reasonably substantial amounts of oil coming out" of the damaged pipeline into the ocean, said Andrew Gowers, an executive vice president at BP. "That is, in part, a factor of the pressure we are bringing to bear in producing the oil." He added that the amount of oil brought up the new line would "be steadily increased." He cautioned that "this is a gradual, carefully calibrated process aimed at steadily reducing the leak rather than a magic bullet."
BP's efforts to stop the flow of oil into the gulf come as the slick has begun to touch shorelines and come closer to currents that could carry plumes of oil suspended beneath the surface out of the gulf to areas much farther away.
A feeling of imminent calamity continues to pervade Louisiana's coastal towns, where tar balls have been washing up intermittently on beaches and watermen are dreading what they think is the inevitable arrival of the huge oil slick and its penetration into marshes rich in fish, shrimp and crabs.
In Grand Isle, just west of, and tucked underneath, the lengthy claw of the Mississippi River delta, shrimper Harry "Chu Chu" Cheramie, 59, said fishermen are encountering oil not far to the west in Timbalier Bay.
"That's going to kill our fishing grounds. We won't be able to drag that area for a long time to come," Cheramie said.
His wife, Josie, the tourism commissioner of Grand Isle, said people come to the island only for three reasons: "Play on the beach. Fish. Eat the seafood."
Fish market manager Juanita Cheramie -- no relation -- was fearful on a gloomy and rainy Sunday afternoon.
"We're going to get it. It's only a matter of time. We're just on a wing and a prayer right now," she said. When the oil hits, she said, "it's over. You can lock the gate in Leeville" -- a town up the road toward New Orleans.
In the town of Golden Meadow, along Bayou Lafourche, crabber Thomas Barrios said he felt "devastated" and "helpless."
"I've worked for this my whole life. Something my grandparents did," he said. He recently opened a fish market and a restaurant. His crabbing grounds are still open, but he doesn't know how long that will last.
"I never know when I wake up in the morning if they're going to shut the gates on me," he said.
BP said it was doing everything it can. While it tries to siphon oil up the insertion pipe, it was also making preparations to "kill" the damaged well at the sea surface by pumping drilling mud at higher pressure and weight than the oil. The mud would be pumped at more than 30,000 horsepower through three-inch hoses and through "choke" valves at the bottom of the blowout preventer near the seafloor. Wells said the valves could shoot as much as 40 barrels of mud a minute into the well.
"We'll be able to pump much faster than the well can flow," he said. "It's about us outrunning the well."
Wells said the company had brought 50,000 barrels of the mud, a mixture of clay and other substances, for the effort, which he said should be far more than needed. He said that the much-ridiculed "junk shot," in which golf balls and shredded tires would be fired into the blowout preventer, would be used only if the drilling mud were being forced upward and needed to be blocked.
Wells said it would take a week to 10 days before preparations for what the company has called the "top kill" effort would be complete.
In the meantime, BP pressed ahead with its insertion pipe, which has rubber components to seal itself off as much as possible from seawater while letting oil and gas push their way into the new pipe.
BP is also pumping 120-degree water and methanol into the long pipe to prevent the formation of crystals of gas hydrates. Those hydrates -- combinations of natural gas and sea water at high pressures and low temperatures -- form slushlike crystals that can block pipelines or even lift heavy objects off the seafloor. They were one reason for the failure of an earlier effort to lower a 98-ton steel cofferdam over the main leak site.
Once the mixture of oil, gas and water reaches ships on the surface, it will be processed and separated into different components. The insertion Sunday was BP's second effort. Late Saturday, after the new tube was inserted, it was yanked out after the umbilical cord of a remotely operated vehicle got entangled with the tube's line to the surface, according to sources familiar with the project.
Meanwhile, questions continued to be raised about the cause of the drill rig accident. On CBS News's "60 Minutes," Mike Williams, the chief electronics technician for the rig's computers and electrical systems, alleged that rig operator Transocean was under pressure from BP to hurry up and finish the well, which had taken weeks longer than expected.
Williams also said that there were problems with the blowout preventer before the accident. He said one of the control pods wasn't functioning as it should have weeks earlier. BP said in congressional testimony last week that it found one of the pods had a dead battery.
Williams also said that a crew member accidentally lowered steel pipe into a closed blowout preventer and that bits of rubber from a gasket were found later in the drilling fluid. That rubber gasket might have helped seal the space around the pipe in an accident.
Achenbach reported from Grand Isle, La.