Problem With Cap Causes More Oil to Gush in Gulf


BP suffered another setback in the Gulf of Mexico on Wednesday, when a discharge of liquid and gases forced the company to remove the containment cap that for three weeks had been able to capture a large portion of the oil gushing from its damaged well.

Adm. Thad W. Allen of the Coast Guard, at a mid-day briefing in Washington, said a remote-controlled submersible operating a mile beneath the surface had most likely bumped a vent and compromised the system. Live video from the seafloor showed oil and gas storming out of the well unrestricted.

This was yet another complication in BP’s two-month-old struggle to contain the tens of thousands of barrels of oil spewing into the gulf.

On Tuesday, BP said it had been able to capture 16,665 barrels of oil through its containment cap, two-thirds of the total recovery operation. Another system, connected to a Q4000 vessel, is still operating since it is connected through a separate pipe near the seabed, rather than directly atop the failed blowout preventer. This system siphons the oil and gas and then burns it on the ship.

But at 8:45 a.m. local time on Wednesday, workers noticed liquids escaping from a valve connected to the Discoverer Enterprise drill ship collecting the oil. Admiral Allen said that a vent sending warm water to prevent hydrates from forming had been damaged. “When they thought that that line might have been compromised, they elected to remove the cap,” Admiral Allen said.

BP was inspecting the pipe, and if workers observe that hydrates — ice-like crystals — have formed, they might have to adjust the line before putting the cap back on.

Neither BP nor the Coast Guard could determine immediately how long it would be before they could reattach the lower marine riser package cap, however. “We’re still developing the facts,” Admiral Allen said.

Also Wednesday, Admiral Allen said that two people working with the overall response efforts had died. One person was the operator of a vessel assisting the cleanup in Gulf Shores, Ala., who was found dead on his docked boat; local police were investigating the circumstances of his death, Admiral Allen said. The other person died in a swimming pool accident.

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Stuart H. Smith is an attorney based in New Orleans fighting major oil companies and other polluters.
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