NEW ORLEANS — A procedure intended to ease the job of permanently plugging the blown-out oil well in the Gulf of Mexico could start as early as the weekend, the government’s point man for the spill response said Thursday.
The static kill, as it is called, can begin once crews finish drilling the relief well that is needed for a permanent fix. Retired Coast Guard Adm. Thad Allen previously said the operation would begin late Sunday or early Monday.
The static kill, which involves pumping heavy mud into the damaged well from the top, is on track for completion sometime next week. Then comes the bottom kill, where the relief well will be used to pump in mud and cement from the bottom; that operation will be less risky if the static kill has effectively plugged the well from the top.
A temporary cap has held in the oil for the past two weeks, and Allen said crews are having trouble finding patches of the crude that had been washing up since the Deepwater Horizon offshore drilling rig exploded April 20, killing 11 people.
Before the well was capped, it spewed 94 million to 184 million gallons of oil into the gulf. No one knows for sure how much of that might still be lurking below the surface, but most of what was coming ashore has broken up, has been sucked up by skimming boats, or has burned.
“The oil that we do see is weathered, it is sheen,” Allen said.
Also Thursday, Allen had what he called a frank and open discussion with officials of Louisiana’s coastal parishes, who are concerned that the Coast Guard and BP will pull back from the spill response once the flow of oil is stopped permanently.
“You know these parish presidents: No one held anything back,” he said.
He said they’ll work together to come up with a plan by next week for how to clean up any oil that might continue washing up on beaches and in wetlands.
Plaquemines Parish President Billy Nungesser said as he arrived for the meeting that it’s clear the cleanup effort is being scaled back even though oil is still showing up on the coast. He said his biggest fear is “they are going to start pulling back. They say they are not, but already they have canceled catering contracts, they’ve stopped production of boom at factories.”
Barring a calamity, the oil won’t start flowing again before BP can permanently kill the well, which could happen by mid-August. Allen said the Coast Guard expects oil to keep showing up on beaches four to six weeks after that happens.
A report by the National Resources Defense Council found that oil was still fouling beaches after the gusher was capped July 15. Since the spill started, beaches from Louisiana to the Florida Panhandle have been closed or slapped with health warnings more than 2,200 times, the council found.
Allen said once the spill stops for good, the Coast Guard may start moving out some of the 11 million feet of boom, 811 oil skimmers and 40,000 people that have been part of the cleanup effort. Many of the workers are fishermen who have lost their livelihoods because of the spill.
Allen also said there is little chance that any of the spilled oil will reach the East Coast, and that those odds will go to zero as the well is killed.