Weather delays recovery work on BP’s broken well

High seas on the Gulf of Mexico forced BP on Monday to delay operations for up to three days to raise from the seabed the piece of equipment that failed to prevent the massive oil spill, federal officials said.

Retired Coast Adm. Thad Allen, the government’s point man on the spill response, said that waves were 6-8 feet tall and crews were worried about the risk of suspending hulking pieces of equipment from a crane underwater during rocking caused by the waves.

He said the operations were expected to be pushed back two to three days, meaning it could be as late as Thursday before engineers begin to remove a temporary cap, which stopped oil from flowing into the sea in mid-July, and the failed blowout preventer, which is a key piece of evidence in investigations. The cap will be stored on the seafloor nearby. It could take 24 hours to lift the blowout preventer from the water.

A new blowout preventer will be placed atop the well once the failed one is raised. After that, the goal is to drill the final 50 feet of a relief well.

Engineers will then pump in mud and cement to permanently plug the well that gushed oil. The final plugging of the well was expected to start after the Sept. 6 Labor Day holiday, but Allen said Monday that operation also will be delayed because of the weather.

“We are in a weather hold right now,” Allen said from aboard the Development Driller III vessel, which is the vehicle for drilling the primary relief well.

Allen said he also would be visiting the Helix Q4000, which is the vessel that will lift the blowout preventer and turn it over to a 12-person evidence team from the federal government.

The Deepwater Horizon rig exploded on April 20 and sank, killing 11 workers. BP was operating the rig, which was owned by Transocean Ltd.

The leak was first contained when engineers were able to place a cap atop BPs well. Workers then pumped mud and cement in through the top in a “static kill” operation that significantly reduced pressure inside the well. Officials don’t expect oil to leak into the sea again when the cap is removed, but Allen has ordered BP to be ready to collect any leaking crude just in case.

The 50-foot, 600,000-pound blowout preventer, which was designed to prevent such a catastrophe, will be taken out of the water with the well pipe still inside to ensure the pipe doesn’t break apart any more than it already has.

Keeping the blowout preventer intact is important because it is key to investigations into the cause of the disaster.