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Latest Attempt by BP to Plug Oil Leak in Gulf of Mexico Fails

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05/29/2010 01:36 PM
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Latest Attempt by BP to Plug Oil Leak in Gulf of Mexico Fails

Latest Attempt by BP to Plug Oil Leak in Gulf of Mexico Fails


HOUSTON — BP engineers failed again to plug the gushing oil well on Saturday, a technician working on the project said, representing yet another setback in a series of unsuccessful procedures the company has tried a mile under the sea to stem the flow spreading into the Gulf of Mexico.

BP made a third attempt at what is termed the “junk shot” Friday night, a procedure that involves pumping odds and ends like plastic cubes, knotted rope, and golf balls into the blowout preventer, the five-story safety device atop the well. The maneuver is complementary to the heavily scrutinized effort known as a “top kill,”which began four days ago and involves pumping heavy mud into the well to counteract the push of the escaping oil. If the well is sealed, the company plans to then fill it with cement.

The technician working on the project said Saturday pumping has again been halted and a review of the data so far is underway after engineers failed again to restrict or plug the well.

“Right now, I would not be optimistic,” the technician, who spoke on condition of anonymity because he is not authorized to speak publicly about the effort. But he added, that if another attempt at the junk shot were to succeed, “that would turn things around.”

BP said Saturday it would not comment on the technician’s assertions. Officials have said they will continue the process into Sunday before they declare it a success or failure.

In previous days, BP officials have been more optimistic than not about the effort working. Tony Hayward, BP’s chief executive, told CNN on Friday morning that he believes there is a 60 to 70 percent chance this effort to plug the well will succeed And Doug Suttles, BP’s chief operating officer, said Friday that the attempt to plug the gushing oil well is going basically according to plan even though there have been stops and starts to the actual pumping. “We’re going to stay with this as long as we need to,” he said. “We’re not going to rush.”

The top kill remains the company’s best option for stopping the massive leak that is polluting gulf water’s at an estimated 12,000 to 19,000 gallons a day.

If it fails, the company has said it will try and build a containment dome again. A first attempt with a containment dome failed earlier this month. Otherwise, it may take until August to drill a relief well, the option experts say is most reliably going to stop the current catastrophe. President Obama, who visited the Gulf Coast on Friday, spoke broadly about the government’s response to the environmental disaster, saying that “not every judgment we make will be right the first time out.”

He also added, seemingly capturing the mood of engineers working to plug the well: “There are going to be a lot of judgment calls here. There are not going to be silver bullets or perfect answers.”

The technician said that engineers had come up with a variety of theories about why efforts have failed so far, and they were trying different sizes of objects. He said the process required trial and error — and sifting through various theories among engineers in the operation’s control room — about the best way to clog the “internal geometry” of the damaged equipment.

BP said pumping operations resumed around 3:45 p.m. Friday.

The technician said Friday that despite all the injections, at various pressure levels, engineers had been able to keep less than 10 percent of the injection fluids inside the stack of pipes above the well. He said that was barely an improvement on the results Wednesday, when the operation began and was suspended after about 10 hours.

“I won’t say progress was zero, but I don’t know if we can round up enough mud to make it work,” said another technician on the project. “Everyone is disappointed at this time.”

The technician also said that there were disagreements among engineers about why efforts had been unsuccessful so far, but that those disagreements were based on a lack of a clear understanding of what was happening inside the pipes on the sea floor.

Meanwhile, anticipating that the top kill may not succeed, BP began preparations to try to place a second containment vessel over the leak. Mr. Suttles said BP was also preparing to replace the damaged blowout preventer.

In Grand Isle, La., President Obama promised to triple the federal personnel along the most threatened stretches of the coast.

“We’re in this together,” he said, gesturing to the three governors, two Louisiana senators, a congressman and other officials he had just met with for more than two hours.

Even if the leak is stopped, “we face a long-term recovery and restoration effort,” Mr. Obama added. “America has never experienced an event like this before,” he said.

Such sentiment plainly was aimed at answering “the anger and frustration” that Mr. Obama acknowledged many residents and political leaders here are feeling, and at blunting charges that his administration had abandoned them as the Bush administration was accused of doing after Hurricane Katrina in 2005.

“I ultimately take responsibility for solving this crisis. I’m the president, and the buck stops with me,” Mr. Obama said.

For the president, who has been on the defensive about his and his administration’s role in trying to stop the spill and prevent oil from reaching the coasts, Friday’s trip was his second since the explosion of BP’s Deepwater Horizon rig on April 20.

Clifford Krauss reported from Houston and Leslie Kaufman from New Orleans. Liz Robbins contributed reporting from New York and Jackie Calmes from Grand Isle, La.