Special Reports

'Top kill' fails; BP goes back to drawing board

MIAMI — BP on Saturday abandoned its three-day “top kill” attempt, declaring it a failure, and said it would next try another engineering strategy to stop the runaway oil and gas leak feeding the worst spill in U.S. history in the Gulf of Mexico.

Robots will saw off portions of Deepwater Horizon’s damaged well, the risers, at a depth of 5,000 feet, said BP executive Doug Suttles. Then, the plan is to weld on a “lower marine riser package,” a cap containment system known in the industry as a Top Hat. It could take four to seven days to accomplish.

People should be able to clearly watch while it happens on live video feeds, unlike the puzzling, failed top kill effort that showed only a murky discharge.

“This scares everybody — the fact that we can’t make this well to stop flowing,” Suttles conceded in a media briefing Saturday evening. Earlier, he had been more measured in tone, saying “it’s time to move on to the next option.”

Oil industry scientists consulted with government experts — including Interior Department Secretary Ken Salazar and Energy Department Secretary Steven Chu — before concluding they had to scrap the top kill effort that Suttles had given a 60 to 70 percent chance of success.

Saturday, he refused to even offer some odds. Coast Guard Rear Adm. Mary Landry, his on-scene partner in the containment and clean-up effort, reflected the frustration of the moment on the 40th day of the disaster:

Despite “tremendous brain power and hard working people,” she said, “There is no silver bullet to stop this leak.”

Then she warned that the start of hurricane season could further complicate the cleanup that has captured oil far from the shore and underwater work, should the rig and other seaborne effort need to be evacuated in advance of a storm.

At the same time, Suttles said that BP was going to move 2,200 cleanup workers “closer to the front lines,” by erecting tent cities in strategic sites along the shore.

BP executives had said since last week that they were readying backup plans for plugging the leak but were going to let play out the idea of infusing it with mud and then capping it with cement until they felt it could not succeed.

Now, Suttles warned, the new technique would not seal off the leak entirely and even if successful could continue to ooze — comments that may have prompted Landry to warn that the industry will still continue to use dispersants. The toxic chemicals disperse the oil before it reaches the surface but are the focus of health concerns.

Suttles said he didn’t anticipate that removing the risers would unleash an increasing amount of oil, which government figures estimated last week were a 12,000-19,000 barrels a day.

But he said that only the completion of one of two relief wells — he estimated in early August — would stop the leak.

Progress on that front has been slow. Suttles reported that the machinery had to dig through 6,000 feet of rock to reach it.

Florida has so far been unscathed and Gov. Charlie Crist’s office credited favorable currents and winds on Saturday with continuing to keep the contaminated oil from the Sunshine State’s shores at least until after Memorial Day.

“Currently, there have been no confirmed oil impacts to Florida”s more than 1,260 miles of coastline and 825 miles of sandy beaches,” said an 11 a.m. update from the state’s Department of Environmental Protection.

Winds and currents “continue to keep the plume away from the Florida coast for at least the next 72 hours.”

In Kenner, La., meantime, the Coast Guard issued an alert Saturday to the public “to be on the lookout for debris from the Deepwater Horizon rig that might be floating in the Gulf or washing up on shore.”

The alert called the debris “vital” to investigators seeking a cause of the April 20 accident.

Their instructions: Leave it in place, take note of its location and call the Transocean contact center at 1-800-598-3195.

One focus of Florida’s response is to keep up the mantra that the state’s coasts are unmarred by the oil disaster. So the state’s oil spill response bulletin reminded that the fisheries, wildlife and seafood off the Florida”s coast in state waters are safe.

Crist has declared this weekend and June 5-6 to be “free fishing weekends.”

Both residents and nonresidents in Florida can fish for saltwater species around the state without a license during that period. The idea is to help draw visitors to the Sunshine State.