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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.

The amount of the submerged oil and the spread of the crude make any previous oil spills unreliable guides. "There are no useful analogies for this one," said Steven Murawski, an official at the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration's fisheries division.

For coastal communities around the gulf, a cascade of economic problems that began with the closure of fishing areas continues. So far, 115,844 claims have been submitted to BP for compensation; about half, 68,352, have been paid, and wrangling over the rest will probably drag on for years.

In Pointe a la Hache, La., a village south of New Orleans that depends heavily on the gulf, oysterman Byron Encalade said parents who have lost income have been scraping to keep a high-achieving school track team going to meets.

BP has made promises to help these families, Encalade said, but "I can't pay these kids' hotels . . . with promises. I've got to have green American dollars."

Down on the gulf floor, the leaking well was sealed off Thursday when remote-controlled submarines closed the last valves on a "three-ram capping stack" that had been fitted atop it.

On Sunday morning, Suttles said the company was on alert for the worst-case scenario: that the bottled-up oil would find another way out, through a fault in the drill pipe or the battered "blowout preventer."

To look for that, officials studied seismic readings from the undersea rock, pressure readings from inside the well itself. On Sunday, Suttles said that no leaks had been detected and that pressure had built to 6,778 pounds per square inch. That was mostly good, he said, although officials had initially expected the well's pressure to climb higher, to 8,000 or 9,000 pounds per square inch.

If nothing changed, Suttles said, the company hoped to make its "test" of the closed cap open-ended. He said that if the company reopened the well to connect it with ships on the surface, that would cause the well to leak into the gulf for as many as three days.

"No one wants to see oil flowing back into the sea, and to initiate containment would require that to occur," Suttles said.

But Allen, the administration's point man on the spill, said he would grant extensions of the test one day at a time.

If the well is never reopened and connected to ships on the surface, it could complicate the U.S. government's efforts to calculate the "flow rate" -- the speed at which the oil was leaking. That would be vital to determining BP's liability for the spill.

The real end to the drama at the wellhead may be a few weeks away. Suttles said the closest relief well was more than 17,000 feet below the seafloor: 100 feet vertically and four feet laterally from the point it needs to reach.

That relief well could hit its target by the end of this month, Suttles said, although the process of "killing" the ruptured well might last until mid-August.

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