Deep disappointment followed BP’s failure of its “top kill” to seal the Gulf of Mexico gusher as the realization sunk in Saturday that the worst marine spill in U.S. history could continue at least until August.
“I guess I’d have to say my heart broke,” U.S. Congressman Charlie Melancon told CNN on the 40th day of the disaster. “My biggest fear is an environmental catastrophe.” U.S. Senator David Witter called the news “maddening.” Acting on orders from Coast Guard Rear Admiral Mary Landry, BP abandoned its three-day attempt to force engineered mud and junk down into the ruptured well in the hopes of stopping the incessant flow of black crude oil and bubbly gas.
Top kill failed “to overcome the pressure of the well,” said BP’s chief operating officer Doug Suttles. “We made numerous attempts.” In its next effort, BP engineers will direct their tiny fleet of underwater robots to cut off the leaking riser pipe that leads out of the damaged well head and create an even surface.
On top of that, it will place yet another in a series of dome arrangements which haven’t yet worked - this time a much smaller one.
The hope is that it will capture more of the crude oil and gas and siphon it up to the tanks in a drill rig on the surface.
This newest in a series of failed efforts has been given a complicated name, “lower marine riser package,” (LMRP). Within four to seven days, BP hopes to have it running and expects it will collect more oil than is now being collected through a siphon at the end of the riser pipe.
“It’s not a tight mechanical seal, but it should be able to capture most of the oil,” Suttles said of the LMRP.
Seeking to show his command of a situation rife with political risk, U.S. President Barack Obama indicated the decision to abandon top kill had been made after consultations with his cabinet secretaries involved in the unfolding disaster.
He said he had been “mindful” that there was a “significant chance” that top kill would not work, but warned that the next step, the LMRP, is “not without risk and has never been attempted before at this depth.” “That is why it was not activated until other methods had been exhausted,” he said in a statement. “It is as enraging as it is heartbreaking, and we will not relent until this leak is contained.” Local government and industry officials on the Gulf Coast are increasingly alarmed as they watch oil slather more than 160 km of the Louisiana coastline and invade 12 hectares of fragile marshlands.
They want more help from Obama and the federal government to dredge up sand barriers and put in place floating booms, since BP, which by law is responsible for the cleanup, is distracted by trying to stop the well flow.
Even Obama’s daughter, Malia, 11, has asked insistently, “Did you plug the hole yet, Daddy?” the president has said.
With the failure of topkill and uncertainty about LMRP, the focus turned to the only permanent solution to shutting down the well — the drilling of a parallel relief well. BP began the well in the days after the April 20 drill rig explosion that ripped open the leak.
Suttles said BP was “ahead of plan” and had already drilled 4 kilometres of the 6 kilometre distance from the surface, but still kept “early August” as the earliest date the well will be finished.
The relief well would be used to force cement into the oil reservoir and close off the ruptured well.
“We’re all on a roller coaster ride,” Landry told reporters in a telephone briefing. “Obviously, we are very disappointed in today’s announcement.” US officials have increased the estimate of crude leakage from 5,000 barrels a day to up to 20,000 barrels, making the well rupture the most disastrous US marine oil disaster, worse than the 1989 Exxon Valdez off Alaska.
Hundreds of pelicans and other sea birds are coated in oil amidst the crucial nesting season. Fragile marsh areas, nursery to much of the Gulf’s marine and waterfowl life, are dying. And 25 per cent of the Gulf’s fishable waters has been shut down to fishers due to the pollution.
The well ruptured after the April explosion that sank the Deepwater Horizon drill rig and killed 11 workers.