BP Faces More Test Delays On Well Cap

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BP's attempt to shut down the spewing well in the Gulf of Mexico has been interrupted. The equipment on the sea floor sprung a leak, and BP is working on a repair. It's been 12 weeks since the Deepwater Horizon disaster when oil began leaking into the Gulf after a fatal explosion.

RENEE MONTAGNE, host:

BP said this morning that it is preparing to take the next important step to shut down the spewing well in the Gulf of Mexico. Its efforts were interrupted last evening when the equipment on the sea floor sprung a leak and BP spent all night working on a repair.

The plume of oil has been billowing into the Gulf for 12 weeks now, but BP says it's hopeful that its efforts on the sea floor today will finally succeed in staunching the flow.

NPR science correspondent Richard Harris joins us live. And, Richard, if that actually happens today, that would be truly a momentous event. Bring us up to date.

RICHARD HARRIS: It would be indeed. And let me bring you up to date. As you may recall, they were trying to shut all the well valves on the device that they had installed on the top of the well on Monday to see whether the oil can simply be held inside the well until there is a permanent fix. Now, they started to close those valves yesterday evening.

But one of those valve assemblies sprang a leak. So BP hoisted it up to the surface, which, remember, is a mile above that well head, and then they lowered down a replacement valve but that didn't connect properly so they had to hoist it up. They tweaked that and they finally lowered that replacement piece again down again this morning. It's now on the well.

BP vice president Kent Wells today said it's not the way he wanted things to work out, but it's not a big setback.

Mr. KENT WELLS (BP): We are prepared for it and we've made the adjustment. And now we just need to go forward and retest it to make sure that this one's fine and then we'll move forward with the test.

HARRIS: And we can expect that later today.

MONTAGNE: And we've been talking about this for a couple of days because it is kind of a big moment. In fact, at first BP was going to try this test on Tuesday. What happened - why was there such a delay?

HARRIS: Well, the federal government decided to do one final review of the information before proceeding with this test because it does carry some risks. And according to National Incident Commander Thad Allen, they brought in some new people who asked some new questions, and it really took them about 24 hours to sort those out.

Allen said he himself was gung-ho for the test but wanted to proceed with an overabundance of caution.

Admiral THAD ALLEN (National Incident Commander; Retired, U.S. Coast Guard): So this is good news. It will be terrific news if we could shut in the well. But I don't think we can say that. I think there needs to be an overabundance of caution.

MONTAGNE: Okay. So what's happening to all the oil from the well as BP works on this test? I mean, the caution's great, but there's oil coming out, right?

HARRIS: That's true. And initially they shut down all the oil collection systems for - so for a few hours all the oil was going into the sea when they started this test. They needed to do that for the test to work. But then when BP realized that they had a problem down there, they decided, well, we better turn the collection systems back on again, and they are now collecting about as much as they were last week. So - but they say they will turn them off again when the test moves forward.

MONTAGNE: Of course everyone is hoping that today will be the day that BP actually shuts down this well. If the test does fail, they'll have to, as I understand, open the valve again. What will that mean, if the test fails?

HARRIS: Well, even if the well can't hold in all that pressure, I think we would feel it's a failure. But the scientists conducting this test say they'll still learn really important things about the condition of the well, and that will help them down the road. Yes, it's true. They will have to open those valves again. But there are three ships on the surface standing by to collect the oil. It will take some days for them to ramp up and be able to collect it all again. And they still might not have the capacity to collect all of it. But in the next couple of weeks they are planning to put enough ships out there in order to gather up as much oil as is coming out of the well.

So we'll be in a situation that will be an improvement from what we see right now, barring a hurricane, in which case the ships will unfortunately not be able to stand by and keep collecting the oil, which is one reason they would really rather just be able to turn off this valve and keep it closed. But, yeah, that's what's going to happen.

And I might add that the valves on the top of the well can come in handy during the final phase of this job - that is, when they actually use that relief well to plug this well with cement. It'll be really helpful for them to have - be able to put some pressure on the top to help control that process of cementing in the well.

MONTAGNE: Richard, thanks very much.

HARRIS: My pleasure.

MONTAGNE: NPR science correspondent Richard Harris.

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