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Cap placed on well is slowing flow of oil into the gulf

By Kimberly Kindy
Washington Post Staff Writer
Sunday, June 6, 2010; A11

A containment cap placed over BP's gushing undersea oil well captured 6,077 barrels of oil during its first 24 hours in operation, between a quarter and a half of the amount that is spilling into the Gulf of Mexico each day, authorities said Saturday.

National incident commander Thad W. Allen said engineers hope to steadily increase the amount of oil that is siphoned off the well until the full flow is captured and directed to a nearby ship at the surface. He acknowledged that the recovery operation is still delicate, however, and said large amounts of oil could continue to flow into the gulf for the next two months.

Since the BP oil rig exploded nearly six weeks ago, federal officials say as much as 1 million barrels of oil have poured into the gulf.

"The worse-case scenario I can see is that the discharge goes forward until we have the relief well built, which will be in early August," Allen told reporters in Theodore, Ala.

The cap, which resembles an upside-down funnel, was lowered over the blown-out well a mile beneath the sea late Thursday. BP had hoped by Saturday morning to close at least two of the four vents at the top of the cap -- which are now open to relieve pressure -- so the flow of the oil to the ship could be increased. But by late Saturday, technicians were still working to close the vents and were hoping they would be shut within the next day or two.

BP is trying to achieve the right balance of pressure, directing as much oil as possible to the surface and reducing the flow from an imperfect rubber seal between the cap and a sheared-off riser pipe.

BP is also trying to prevent water from entering the cap. The presence of water scuttled an attempt by BP four weeks ago when icelike crystals, called hydrates, plugged the pipe. This time, BP is pumping methanol into the cap to prevent the crystals from forming, Allen said.

The oil captured Saturday is a fraction of the 23 million to 47 million gallons government officials estimate have leaked into the gulf since the April 20 explosion that killed 11 workers, making it the nation's largest oil spill.

A thick film coated the shores of Louisiana, Mississippi, Alabama and Florida on Saturday morning, and tar balls, discolored seashells and orange foam had washed up on Gulf Coast beaches. The oil has turned marshlands into death zones for wildlife and stained beaches rust and crimson.

More than 500 birds have been found dead from Texas to Florida since the start of the leak, according to a federal tally released Friday, though their exact cause of death was not clear. More than 200 sea turtles have also been found dead. Dead dolphins were also washing ashore Saturday, although there was no official count.

In Florida, state officials said there was an immediate concern that the oil would coat a long swath of the state's panhandle, and authorities were pushing for oil skimmers offshore and more cleanup crews on beaches. By late Saturday, thousands of local residents in the affected coastal states had been trained, hired and were working on the cleanup effort.

At a briefing Saturday, BP officials said the company had committed close to $85 million through June to cover about 35,000 claims from workers and small businesses, with about half of those claims already paid.

The earliest claims being handled are for $5,000 or less, and most -- 90 percent -- went to fishermen, crabbers and shrimpers, according to BP America's vice president for resources, Darryl Willis.

Staff writer Mary Pat Flaherty contributed to this report.

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