'Static kill' of oil well deemed a success; gulf waters begin clearing

BP says it has reached the "desired outcome" in a procedure in which it pumped mud down the throat of the blown-out well that is leaking in the Gulf of Mexico. A BP spokeswoman says the mud is holding the oil down.
By Joel Achenbach and Steven Mufson
Washington Post Staff Writer
Thursday, August 5, 2010

On the 107th day of the Deepwater Horizon disaster, the Macondo well became an apparently harmless hole in the seafloor, clogged with 13-pound-per-gallon gunk, and barely more of a threat to spew oil into the Gulf of Mexico than to start gushing lemonade.

The "static kill" had worked.

The well that tormented the nation has flatlined. Federal officials green-lighted the cementing of the well, already jammed with mud, late Wednesday. Federal waters are reopening gradually to fishing. The oil slick, the once-horrific expanse of red-orange mousse and silver sheen, has largely disappeared, federal scientists said Wednesday, even though the amount of oil left is more than four times that dumped by the Exxon Valdez.

The Obama administration breathed a sigh of relief, holding a midday news conference featuring top officials who claimed credit for guiding BP in getting the well under control. Officials hastened to remind the public that Macondo won't be incontrovertibly dead until a relief well drills into it near its base and plugs it with cement. But even the cautious retired Adm. Thad Allen, national incident coordinator, called the static kill a "fairly consequential" event and a "very significant step."

About three-quarters of the nearly 5 million barrels of oil that escaped Macondo has evaporated, dissolved or been dispersed by chemicals, skimmed by boats, burned, weathered and, most important, devoured by the Gulf of Mexico's permanent oil-eating microbial workforce, according to a study released Wednesday by the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration and Interior Department.

"Mother Nature is assisting here considerably," said NOAA administrator Jane Lubchenco.

This should terminate, once and for all, the more apocalyptic scenarios for the demise of the gulf and the spread of oil to Atlantic shores. There is no sign that the oil is going to ride the Loop Current onto the beaches of South Florida, the Outer Banks, Bermuda, Ireland and so on.

Just a month ago, the spill was an uncontrolled calamity: Macondo mocked the technological skills of the world's petroleum engineers, and oil was slathering birds and turtles and tar-balling hundreds of miles of coastline. The turning point came when BP put a new tight-fitting cap on the well July 12 and closed the valves three days later, cutting off the ugly geyser of oil that had become a dominant image of the summer.

Federal scientists have said that vigilance would be called for even after the static kill procedure worked, which, according to BP in a 2 a.m. announcement, it did. BP sent out a bulletin declaring success after spending eight hours pumping mud into the well from surface ships.

"It'll look like it's mortally wounded but may not be dead," said Tom Hunter, a member of Energy Secretary Steven Chu's scientific team.

In a sense, this will not really be over until Allen feels secure enough to take the vacation with his wife that he had scheduled for Aug. 1. Allen has been adamant that the relief well is the ultimate answer and came close this week to declaring that any premature celebration of the end of Macondo would be a federal crime: "I'm the national incident commander, and that's the way this will end."

Allen has at various times referred to the oil spill as an event that is "anomalous, asymmetrical and unprecedented." On Wednesday he dropped a few more multisyllabic adjectives: "indeterminate . . . omnidirectional . . . unbounded." But he acknowledged that these last descriptions of the spill no longer apply: "It's bounded now," he said, permitting himself a flicker of a smile.

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