Oil spews unchecked in effort to cap well

In this image taken from video provided by BP PLC, the arm of a remotely operated vehicle works at the Deepwater Horizon oil spill site in the Gulf of Mexico, Saturday, July 10, 2010. Undersea robots manipulated by engineers a mile above were expected to begin work Saturday removing the containment cap over the gushing well head in the Gulf of Mexico to replace it with a tighter-fitting cap that could funnel all the oil to tankers at the surface. If all goes according to plan, the tandem of the tighter cap and the tankers could keep all the oil from polluting the fragile Gulf as soon as Monday. But it would be only a temporary solution to the catastrophe unleashed by a drilling rig explosion. It won't plug the busted well and it remains uncertain that it will succeed. (AP Photo/BP PLC)In this image taken from video provided by BP PLC, the arm of a remotely operated vehicle works at the Deepwater Horizon oil spill site in the Gulf of Mexico, Saturday, July 10, 2010. Undersea robots manipulated by engineers a mile above were expected to begin work Saturday removing the containment cap over the gushing well head in the Gulf of Mexico to replace it with a tighter-fitting cap that could funnel all the oil to tankers at the surface. If all goes according to plan, the tandem of the tighter cap and the tankers could keep all the oil from polluting the fragile Gulf as soon as Monday. But it would be only a temporary solution to the catastrophe unleashed by a drilling rig explosion. It won’t plug the busted well and it remains uncertain that it will succeed. (AP Photo/BP PLC)
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NEW ORLEANS (AP) — Hundreds of thousands of gallons of oil are being allowed to spew into the fouled waters of the Gulf of Mexico while BP engineers prepare to install a new containment system they hope will catch it all in the coming days.

There’s no guarantee for such a delicate operation nearly a mile below the water’s surface, officials said, and the permanent fix of plugging the well from the bottom remains slated for mid-August.

“It’s not just going to be, you put the cap on, it’s done. It’s not like putting a cap on a tube of toothpaste,” Coast Guard spokesman Capt. James McPherson said.

Robotic submarines removed the cap that had been placed on top of the leak in early June to collect the oil and send it to surface ships for collection or burning. BP aims to have the new, tighter cap in place as early as Monday and said that, as of Sunday morning, the work was going according to plan. BP hopes the capping operation will be done within three to six days.

Kent Wells, a BP senior vice president, said during a Sunday morning news briefing he was pleased with the progress but cautioned that unforeseen bumps could lie ahead.

“We’ve tried to work out as many of the bugs as we can. The challenge will come with something unexpected,” Mr. Wells said.

If tests show the new cap can withstand the pressure of the oil and is working, the Gulf region could get its most significant piece of good news since the April 20 explosion on the BP-leased Deepwater Horizon rig, which killed 11 workers.

It would be only a temporary solution to the catastrophe. Hope for permanently plugging the leak lies with two relief wells, the first of which should be finished by mid-August.

With the cap removed Saturday at 12:37 p.m. CDT, oil flowed freely into the water, collected only by the Q4000 surface vessel, with a capacity of about 378,000 gallons. That vessel should be joined Sunday by the Helix Producer, which has more than double the Q4000’s capacity.

But the lag could be long enough for as much as 5 million gallons to gush into already fouled waters. Officials said a fleet of large skimmers was scraping oil from the surface above the well site.

The process begun Saturday has two major phases: removing equipment currently on top of the leak and installing new gear designed to fully contain the flow of oil.

BP on Sunday said it successfully had removed the top flange that only partially had completed the seal with the old cap, almost a day earlier than a previous estimate.

Now that the top flange is removed, BP is considering whether it needs to bind together two sections of drill pipe that are in the gushing well head. The following step involves lowering a 12-foot-long piece of equipment called a flange transition spool onto the well head and bolting it to the bottom flange still in place.

After the spool is bolted in place, the new cap — called a capping stack or “Top Hat 10” — can be mounted. The equipment, weighing some 150,000 pounds, is designed to seal the leak fully and provide connections for new vessels on the surface to collect oil. The cap has valves that can restrict the flow of oil and shut it in, if it can withstand the enormous pressure.

That will be one of the key items for officials to monitor, said Paul Bommer, a professor of petroleum engineering at the University of Texas at Austin.

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