By David A. Fahrenthold
Washington Post Staff Writer
Monday, July 19, 2010; A01
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.
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.