Aug 5, 2010 9:40 PM by Alison Haynes
NEW ORLEANS (AP) - BP finished pumping fresh cement into its
blown-out oil well Thursday as it aimed to seal for good the
ruptured pipe that for months spewed crude into the Gulf of Mexico
in one of the world's worst spills.
A day before, crews forced a slow torrent of heavy mud down the
broken wellhead from ships a mile above to push the crude back to
its underground source. The cement was the next step in this
so-called "static kill" and is intended to keep the oil from
finding its way back out.
"This is not the end, but it will virtually assure us that
there will be no chance of oil leaking into the environment,"
retired Adm. Thad Allen, who oversees the spill response for the
government, said in Washington.
The progress was another bright spot as the tide appeared to be
turning in the months-long battle to contain the oil, with a
federal report this week indicating that only about a quarter of
the spilled crude remains in the Gulf and is degrading quickly.
Even so, Joey Yerkes, a 43-year-old fisherman in Destin, Fla.,
said he and other boaters, swimmers and scuba divers continue to
find oil and tar balls in areas that have been declared clear.
"The end to the leak is good news, but the damage has been
done," Yerkes said.
If the mud plug in the blown-out well is successfully augmented
with the cement, the final step involves an 18,000-foot relief well
that intersects with the old well just above the vast undersea
reservoir that had been losing oil freely since the Deepwater
Horizon rig exploded off Louisiana on April 20, killing 11 workers.
The hope has been to pump mud and possibly cement down the
relief well after its completion later this month, supplementing
the work in this week's static kill and stopping up the blown-out
well from the bottom.
It could take at least a day for the cement pumped into the
blown well to dry, and another five to seven days for crews to
finish drilling the final 100 feet of the relief well. Then the
pumping process in the relief well could last days or even weeks,
depending on whether engineers find any oil leaks, Allen said.
Despite the progress on the static kill, BP executives and
federal officials won't declare the threat dashed until they use
the relief well - though lately they haven't been able to publicly
agree on its role.
Federal officials including Allen have insisted that crews will
shove mud and cement through the 18,000-foot relief well, which
should be completed within weeks. Crews can't be sure the area
between the inner piping and outer casing has been plugged until
the relief well is complete, he said.
But for reasons unclear, BP officials have in recent days
refused to commit to pumping cement down the relief well, saying
only that it will be used in some fashion. BP officials have not
elaborated on other options, but those could include using the well
simply to test whether the reservoir is plugged.
"We have always said that we will move forward with the relief
well. That will be the ultimate solution," BP Senior Vice
President Kent Wells said Wednesday afternoon. "We need to take
each step at a time. Clearly we need to pump cement. If we do it
from the top, we might alter what we do with the relief well, but
the relief well is still a part of the solution. The ultimate
objective is getting this well permanently sealed."
The game of semantics has gone back and forth this week, with
Allen clearly said again Thursday that to be safe, the gusher
will have to be plugged up from two directions, with the relief
well being used for the so-called "bottom kill."
"The well will not be killed until we do the bottom kill and do
whatever needs to be done," he said, adding: "I am the national
incident commander and I issue the orders. This will not be done
until we do the bottom kill."
Whether the well is considered sealed yet or not, there's still
oil in the Gulf or on its shores - nearly 53 million gallons of it,
according to the report released Wednesday by the Interior
Department and the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration.
That's still nearly five times the size of the Exxon Valdez spill,
which wreaked environmental havoc in Alaska in 1989.
But almost three-quarters of the nearly 207 million gallons of
oil that leaked overall has been collected at the well by a
temporary containment cap, been cleaned up or chemically dispersed,
or naturally deteriorated, evaporated or dissolved, the report
The remaining oil, much of it below the surface, remains a
threat to sea life and Gulf Coast marshes, NOAA Administrator Jane
Lubchenco said. But the spill no longer threatens the Florida Keys
or the East Coast, the report said.
Some outside experts have questioned the veracity of the report,
with at least one top federal scientist warning that harmful
effects could continue for years even with oil at the microscopic
But Allen said the estimates are based on the best data
scientists had available and that they could be "refined" as more
research is completed.
"Models are an approximation of reality and are therefore never
perfect," he said.
An experimental cap has stopped the oil from flowing for the
past three weeks, but it was not a permanent solution.
The static kill - also known as bullheading - probably would not
have worked without that cap in place. It involves slowly pumping
the mud and now the cement from a ship down lines running to the
top of the ruptured well a mile below. A similar effort failed in
May when the mud couldn't overcome the flow of oil.