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Jun 1, 2010 7:43 AM by Sharlee Barriere

'Flotels' Await Oil Spill Cleanup Workers on Gulf

PORT FOURCHON, La. (AP) - The 40-foot-long corrugated steel
boxes, resembling oversized white shipping containers, are stacked
two high and three wide atop a barge at Port Fourchon, the oil
industry's hub on the Gulf of Mexico. The words "Martin Quarters"
painted in black offer the only clue that they're not stuffed with
cargo.
This barge is a floating hotel, or "flotel," set up by BP and
several subcontractors to accommodate more than 500 workers hired
to clean up the worst oil spill in U.S. history. Temporary housing
is the only way to station workers at Port Fourchon, a massive
shipyard that serves offshore oil rigs and is surrounded by
ecologically sensitive marshes and beaches.
"There are no permanent residents here on the port," said
Dennis Link, a manager from a BP refinery who's handling logistics
at the 1,300-acre site that's easily accessible by ship, but
reachable on land only by a state road that snakes through the
bayous.
With the ambitious "top kill" having failed over the weekend
and a relief well at least two months away, BP was ramping up its
efforts to clean up the Louisiana coast. Another temporary fix - an
effort to saw through the pipe leaking the oil and cap it - could
be tried as soon as Wednesday. In the meantime, more than 125 miles
of the state's coastline already have been hit with oil, including
the resort of Grand Isle near Port Fourchon.
Shares in BP PLC were plunging in London on Tuesday after the
oil company's latest failed attempt to block the oil leak in the
Gulf. Shares fell 13 percent to $6.20 on the London Stock Exchange.
Tuesday was the first day of trading there since the failed attempt
over the weekend.
BP also said costs for the spill have reached $990 million.
The cleanup, relief wells and temporary fixes were being watched
closely by President Barack Obama's administration. Obama planned
to meet for the first time Tuesday with the co-chairmen of an
independent commission investigating the spill, while Attorney
General Eric Holder was headed to the Gulf Coast to meet with state
attorneys general.
On Monday afternoon, the living quarters on the flotel sat
empty. Generators pumped in cool air and powered the lights, and at
the foot of each bunk sat a towel, washcloth and individually
wrapped bar of soap. If necessary, four tents on dry land nearby
can house 500 more workers. Workers will likely be trucked in on
the two-lane state road.
The accommodations on the barge are Spartan, but comfortable -
similar to military barracks. Each pod contains 12 bunks, with a
bathroom for every four. Per Coast Guard standards, each resident
gets 30 square feet of space in the quarters. The barge has 10
washers, 10 dryers and a kitchen, although food will be served in a
tent on land. The quarters are typically floated alongside offshore
oil rigs to supplement housing on the drilling operations.
The flotel could be moved if significant amounts of oil wash up
at another location. Another flotel sits about 15 miles away, off
Grand Isle, and BP plans to establish them elsewhere along the
coast. Port Fourchon and Grand Isle were quiet Monday, with only a
handful of people seen walking on the beaches.
BP is hiring local workers and ones from other states, and Link
acknowledged that some from Louisiana might prefer a long drive
home each to staying on the flotel.
For Chad Martin, co-owner of Martin Quarters, business is
booming. His company has 200 living quarters, and 60 were available
when a BP subcontractor called. The oil giant rented every single
one.
But Martin understands the gravity of the situation.
"This is not the way to get work," he said
Cleanup efforts are being ramped up while BP also tries the
latest in a series of patchwork fixes, this one a cut-and-cap
process to put a lid on the leaking wellhead so oil can be siphoned
to the surface. The risky procedure could, at least temporarily,
increase the oil flowing from the busted well.
Using robot submarines, BP plans to cut away the riser pipe this
week and place a cap-like containment valve over the blowout
preventer. On Monday, live video feeds showed robot submarines
moving equipment around and using a circular saw-like device to cut
small pipes at the bottom of the Gulf.
"We are well into the operation to put this cap on the well
now," BP Managing Director Bob Dudley said on
Tuesday.
BP failed to plug the leak Saturday with its top kill, which
shot mud and pieces of rubber into the well but couldn't beat back
the pressure of the oil.
The oil company also announced plans Monday to try attaching
another pipe to a separate opening on the blowout preventer with
some of the same equipment used to pump in mud during the top kill.
The company also wants to build a new freestanding riser to carry
oil toward the surface, which would give it more flexibility to
disconnect and then reconnect containment pipes if a hurricane
passed through.
Neither of those plans would start before mid-June and would
supplement the cut-and-cap effort.
But the best chances for sealing off the leak are two relief
wells, the first of which won't be ready until August. The spill
has already leaked between 19.7 million and 43 million gallons,
according to government estimates.
For the relief well to succeed, the bore hole must precisely
intersect the damaged well, which experts have compared to hitting
a target the size of a dinner plate more than two miles into the
earth. If it misses, BP will have to back up its drill, plug the
hole it just created, and try again.
"The probability of them hitting it on the very first shot is
virtually nil," said David Rensink, incoming president of the
American Association of Petroleum Geologists, who spent most of his
39 years in the oil industry in offshore exploration. "If they get
it on the first three or four shots they'd be very lucky."
The trial-and-error process could take weeks, but it will
eventually work, scientists and BP said. Then engineers will then
pump mud and cement through pipes to ultimately seal the well.
On the slim chance the relief well doesn't work, scientists
weren't sure exactly how much - or how long - the oil would flow.
The gusher would continue until the well bore hole collapsed or
pressure in the reservoir dropped to a point where oil was no
longer pushed to the surface, said Tad Patzek, chair of the
Petroleum and Geosystems Engineering Department at the University
of Texas-Austin.
BP said it doesn't know how much oil is in the reservoir because
it was starting to collect and analyze data on its size when the
rig exploded April 20.
In Patzek's mind, failing to get the relief wells to work isn't
an option.
"I don't admit the possibility of it not working," he said.

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