The gulf well is an uncapped geyser again after an accident forced officials Wednesday to remove the containment device that had been effectively capturing much of the gushing oil for weeks.
Separately, the response to the spill took a tragic turn when two people associated with the cleanup died in unrelated incidents, one a swimming pool accident and the other involving a person enlisted in the effort to skim oil, Coast Guard Adm. Thad Allen announced. He had no further information about the deaths, which he learned about just before his noon briefing.
Allen said the accident involving the containment operation was also under investigation, but he outlined the early theory of what happened. At 9:45 a.m. engineers aboard the drillship Discoverer Enterprise noticed gas rising through a water line that had been pumping hot water down to the seafloor to prevent methane hydrates from clogging the cap.
The appearance of gas created a hazardous situation on the ship, which has been rigidly connected to the well via a riser pipe and the containment cap. Engineers disengaged the cap and the riser. Scrutiny of the cap indicated that a vent had been inadvertently closed, possibly bumped by one of the many remotely operated vehicles, or ROVs, that conduct the subsea operations, Allen said.
Officials are studying the cap to see if it is now clogged with methane hydrates. They hope to be able to recap the well, though Allen did not give any timetable for that. The cap had managed to capture 16,668 barrels (700,056 gallons) of oil Tuesday; 10,429 more barrels (438,018 gallons) were flared through a separate containment operation using a line that leads to a different vessel, the Q4000.
The total amount captured set a new record for the containment operation, but the Wednesday morning setback puts the future of the strategy in doubt.
Complicating matters is that hurricane season is kicking into full gear. Allen said up to a week of preparation would be necessary to disengage vessels in advance of a tropical storm. A tropical wave in the Caribbean is moving to the west, slowly, and has a 30 percent chance of becoming a tropical cyclone in the next 48 hours, according to the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration.
The flaring operation continues, but the live video feed from the gulf shows a scene not witnessed for weeks: a plume of oil and gas surging from the sheared-off pipe atop the well’s blowout preventer. The overall flow has been estimated by the government at 35,000 to 60,000 barrels (1.47 million to 2.52 million gallons) a day.
This was not the first accident involving the ROVs, which are operated by technicians on surface ships. Weeks ago, an ROV bumped a pipe that was being used to siphon oil from the collapsed riser pipe and temporarily shut down that containment operation.
“I think the fact that we’ve had two bumps that have had consequences associated with them in the 60-plus days we’ve been doing the response, it’s a pretty good record,” Allen said.