BP acknowledged the failure Saturday of its latest “top kill” operation to tamp down oil gushing from its blown-out well, and launched a new interim effort to contain the flow.
“After three full days, we have been unable to overcome the flow from the well, so we now believe it is time to move on to another option,” said BP Chief Operating Officer Doug Suttles at a news conference with federal officials in Robert, La.
In a surprisingly somber statement from the company that has sought to reassure the public over the last 40 days, Suttles acknowledged: “This scares everybody — the fact that we can’t make this well stop flowing or the fact that we haven’t succeeded so far.”
President Obama’s reaction was measured. “It is also important to note that while we were hopeful that the top kill would succeed,” he said, “we were also mindful that there was a significant chance it would not. And we will continue to pursue any and all responsible means of stopping this leak until the completion of the two relief wells currently being drilled.”
“As I said yesterday, every day that this leak continues is an assault on the people of the Gulf Coast region, their livelihoods and the natural bounty that belongs to all of us,” said Obama, who visited the region Friday. “It is as enraging as it is heartbreaking, and we will not relent until this leak is contained, until the waters and shores are cleaned up and until the people unjustly victimized by this man-made disaster are made whole.”
The top-kill operation had injected a high-pressure stream of heavy drilling fluid into a failed blowout preventer in hopes of overcoming the upward force of the oil so it could plug the well with cement.
In the new strategy, BP engineers would first sever the crumpled riser pipe, then attach a cap over the lower-marine riser package that sits atop the blowout preventer. A new pipe would direct the oil to a surface ship. It will take at least four days to install, Suttles said, and could capture “a great majority” of the oil spewing from the well.
Oil is now flowing from the crippled well and would continue until the maneuver is finished, Suttles said. Last week, a government panel estimated the flow of oil at 504,000 to 798,000 gallons a day.
Suttles cautioned that the new maneuver would be “a very complex operation.” As with earlier efforts, it has never been tried at 5,000 feet below sea level using robotic submarines.
In the end, only a relief well, expected to be finished by early August, would finally be able to kill the well, Suttles said.
One of two such wells being slant-drilled is at 12,900 feet below the ocean surface, but it must reach 18,000 feet. “The farther we go, the slower it gets,” he said, adding, “we are ahead of our plan right now.”
The collapse of BP’s top-kill maneuver came as public frustration mounted over what the government now calculates to be the biggest oil spill in the nation’s history. Earlier failures included a huge box known as a “top hat” that became clogged with crystalline gas hydrates, and a tube that had siphoned a small portion of oil from the fractured riser pipe on the ocean floor.
As much as 29 million gallons of oil have been spilled into the gulf since the April 20 explosion of the Deepwater Horizon drilling rig, compared with 11 million gallons leaked into Alaska’s Prince William Sound by the Exxon Valdez tanker in 1989.
BP, the owner of the well, says it will pay “all legitimate claims” from the accident, which Obama on Friday called “a man-made catastrophe that is still evolving.”
At the news conference, Coast Guard Rear Adm. Mary Landry told reporters, “Obviously we’re very disappointed in today’s announcement … but we want to assure you, we’ve had a very, very aggressive response.” She echoed Obama’s remarks during his visit to Louisiana, saying, “There’s no silver bullet to stop this leak.”
Some engineers were critical of BP’s decision to persist with the top kill, and applauded the company’s decision to move on.
Iraj Ershaghi, a petroleum engineering professor at USC, warned that continuing to inject mud into the well at extreme pressure could have broken pipes, or casings, deep in the well, causing it to collapse. Such a scenario could leave a ragged crater that could be difficult, if not impossible, to plug by any means, he said.
Ershaghi said the new strategy was a well-tested method of controlling wells and was BP’s best chance of success now.
Concern mounted Saturday over possible health effects of dispersants BP continues to spray.
Two contract cleanup workers were airlifted to West Jefferson Medical Center in Marrero, La., on Friday night after suffering dizziness, headaches and chest pains on boats operating about a mile south of the coast.
One of the men told a hospital administrator that he had been helping to burn off oil when he became ill. He said he had been sprayed with dispersant the day before. He declined to speak to a reporter, saying he feared losing his job, the administrator said.
The two men were expected to be released Monday. A hospital spokeswoman said no toxicology tests had been conducted.
A news release from the Unified Command, a joint information center of BP and the federal government, said that at the time of the men’s complaints, no controlled burning of oil was underway. It also said that aerial dispersants were used in the area of the burn fleet “but as per safety restrictions, no dispersants are deployed within two miles of any vessel or platform.”
Federal authorities are expected to set up a temporary health clinic in south Louisiana by Tuesday to screen and treat workers and residents affected by the oil leak, according to Rep. Charlie Melancon (D-La.).
Melancon noted that crews and volunteers were being exposed to “hazardous fumes and dangerous dispersants” and that “we’ve got cleaning locations for the birds but nothing for the people.”
Daniel Sain, of Hopedale, La., said he was laying boom last week when he came across a rust-colored area of water with a pungent smell. Afterward, he experienced headaches, nausea and sinus irritation, he said.
“I don’t smoke cigarettes or anything, but I’m coughing like a smoker,” he said, adding that no medical personnel were available when he docked.
Even residents not working on the spill reported unaccustomed ailments. Lisa Louque, a restaurant worker, said she felt dizzy and disoriented and couldn’t breathe several days after walking on a nearby beach. She said she stayed at Lady of the Sea General Hospital in Cut Off, La., for a day and a half.
“I didn’t touch the oil,” she said. “I didn’t know I really shouldn’t have been out there.”
In Kenner, La., a panel of the Coast Guard and the Minerals Management Service heard a sixth day of testimony about the causes of the spill. David Sims, BP operations manager for the relief well effort, testified by telephone. He said that the Deepwater Horizon crew had experienced problems in the months before the accident, including a “kick” from rising gas and problems with the circulation of drilling mud, but that he was not informed of any serious problems on the day of the explosion.
His testimony added to growing anecdotal evidence of chaos, equipment failures and confusion about procedures and authority after explosions rocked the rig.
The panel delayed questioning Sims about the blown-out well, which he designed, until sometime in July. “We want to ask him those kinds of questions in person,” said panelist Jason Mathews, a petroleum engineer for the Minerals Management Service.
Saturday night, a storm rolled into south Louisiana just as two biologists from the state Department of Fisheries and Wildlife hauled a dead dolphin into their boat. Mandy Tumlin and Clint Edds, dressed in white contamination jumpsuits, had located the 6-foot dolphin in the waters of Barataria Pass. “It’s the freshest one we’ve seen,” Tumlin said.
The dolphin’s glistening hide showed no sign of oil, but it will be taken to an aquatic research center in New Orleans for testing. Tests are underway on 25 dead marine mammals, including dolphins, collected since the spill began.
Times staff writers Jill Leovy in Los Angeles and Nicole Santa Cruz in Belle Chasse, La., and photographer Carolyn Cole in Barataria Pass, La., contributed to this report.