Allen's letter to BP notes seep, 'undetermined anomalies' at wellhead

BP, the government and an army of volunteers are fighting to contain and clean the millions of gallons of oil spewing from the site of the Deepwater Horizon explosion in the Gulf of Mexico.
By David A. Fahrenthold
Washington Post Staff Writer
Monday, July 19, 2010

A day that seemed destined for success ended in ambiguity Sunday. The blown-out well at the bottom of the Gulf of Mexico remained shut for the fourth day, but the national incident commander reported concerns about seepage around the well and ordered BP to improve its monitoring of possible problems.

A seep would be a serious setback if it indicated oil or gas escaping from the capped well and burbling up through the seafloor.

Retired Coast Guard Adm. Thad W. Allen released a letter Sunday night that he had written to BP, noting a "detected seep a distance from the well and undetermined anomalies at the well head."

He gave permission to keep the well shut but said BP must keep him abreast of any potential problems at the well and prepare to release oil if a serious leak appears. "When seeps are detected, you are directed to marshal resources, quickly investigate, and report findings to the government in no more than four hours," Allen wrote.

Earlier in the day, BP had presented a more confident assessment of the situation. Company officials said that a mechanical "cap," installed Thursday to seal the well, appeared to be holding up.

Chief Operating Officer Doug Suttles said BP hoped to keep the well "shut in," relying on the cap until the oil company could close the ruptured well permanently with a relief well this month or next.

On Sunday evening, a spokesman for BP, John Curry, declined to say whether Suttles's assessment from earlier in the day was still accurate. "We're not seeing any problems at this point, any issues with the shut-in," Suttles had said about 8:30 a.m.

"We're not going to provide a running commentary" of developments at the wellhead, Curry said. "If there's a change, a release will be issued."

In the confusion, this much was clear: Even if the now-infamous Macondo well doesn't leak another drop, the spill is likely to remain an environmental and economic problem for some time. Out in the gulf, a recent reconnaissance flight showed that the spill's epicenter -- the waters around the leaking well -- is no longer clogged with thick oil, a Coast Guard spokesman said. What remained was only a "silver sheen," he said, meaning a thin film of decayed oil.

But at least 2.3 million barrels (105 million gallons) has spilled already, according to an estimate from the International Energy Agency. A U.S. government map showed a horseshoe-shaped blob of oil, miles and miles across, in the gulf. And 587 miles of coastline -- including 337 miles in Louisiana -- have been tainted by oil.

And, further offshore, scientists are struggling to understand how submerged "clouds" of oil are affecting the gulf's ecosystems. These might poison some small animals outright, and they might trigger low-oxygen "dead zones" that could smother long-living corals in the deep.

Scientists said it may take several growing seasons for them to ascertain how the spill has affected vital marine animals such as shrimp, crab and oysters. And it could take far longer to understand what has happened to such creatures as sperm whales, which live in little-studied canyons of the deep gulf.

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