Work continues on containing oil from well blowout

Houston Chronicle:

As the Deepwater Horizon's well continued to gush 42,000 gallons of oil a day into the Gulf of Mexico, response teams that were unable on Sunday to seal off the wellhead about a mile underwater turned their attention to containing the spill at its source.

Officials at BP, responsible for the environmental clean-up efforts as the rig's lease operator, said they were engineering a system to lower a dome-like structure over the well to capture the oil and funnel it to a collection tank on the surface.

High waves and stiff winds, meanwhile, kept oil skimmers and other environmental cleanup vessels back at port in Venice, La., for the better part of Sunday, allowing the oil slick to widen to about 600 square miles. Those same heavy weather conditions were keeping the sheen safely away from the Louisiana coast, though some communities had deployed booms around particularly fragile shorelines as a precautionary measure.

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The event has spawned one of the largest response efforts in the Gulf in decades. More than 1,000 people are on scene to assist in the efforts to contain and clean the spill — 700 of them with BP, according to the company.

The slick should remain at least 30 miles off shore for the next three days, based on weather forecasts. As of Sunday, 48,324 gallons of oily water had been collected by surface skimmers. Planes dropped 7,715 gallons of chemicals on Sunday to break up the oil and more than 100,000 gallons of the chemicals are available for use in the Gulf — one third of the world's supply, BP said.

Efforts to staunch the flow were being complicated by the sheer depths at which remotely operated vehicles were being required to work. On Sunday morning, up to four of the robotic vehicles had descended to the wellhead and were attempting to pump fluids into a 450-ton blowout preventer to shut a valve that would close off the well, said Doug Suttles, BP's chief operating officer for exploration and production.

Should those efforts fail, Suttles said the company would file its final permits over the next 24 hours to begin drilling a “relief” well that will inject a heavy fluid to stem the flow.

That would allow other work to permanently seal off the well later.

A new rig is expected to arrive in the area about 40 miles off the Louisiana coast by Monday, but it will be at least two months before a new well could be drilled, he said.

BP is also now looking at a procedure that successfully captured oil leaks in the Gulf for platforms and rigs damaged during Hurricane Katrina by using a dome or cone-shaped structure to corral oil before it could make its way through the water. Suttles cautioned that the system had only been tried in shallow waters and may not be possible at 5,000 feet.

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BP is certainly putting the resources behind the effort to staunch the flow of oil from the blowout. It is important not noly to stop this flow, but to prove that these deep wells can be safely managed when problems strike. The potential from these wells is much too important to not fix this problem as promptly as possible.

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