Special Reports

Oil well cap in place; testing on seal to begin

Robots lowered a new, tighter-fitting cap on a gushing oil well in the Gulf of Mexico late Monday — a move that might give BP the ability to stop the flow of oil completely.

Live video from undersea robots showed the massive piece of machinery being lowered onto the well Monday evening, raising the possibility that after 84 days of gushing oil, the wound in the earth a mile below the Gulf of Mexico’s surface could soon be stanched.

In Washington, meanwhile, the Obama administration issued a fresh moratorium on deep-water drilling.

About 6:30 p.m. local time in the Gulf, live video cameras trained on the wellhead showed the cap being slowly lowered into place, 11 hours after BP Chief Operating Officer Doug Suttles said the company was close to putting the seal in place. Company officials did not comment on the operation Monday evening or say how long it would take to latch the cap permanently in place.

From the White House to Gulf Coast marinas and town halls, all eyes were on the slow, deliberate process unfolding a mile below the sea. President Barack Obama was getting repeated updates, his advisor David Axelrod said. Residents on the coast were skeptical, though, and know that even if the gusher is contained, the disaster will be far from over.

The 18-foot-high, 150,000-pound metal cap will be tested and monitored for six to 48 hours starting Tuesday morning to determine whether it can withstand pressure from the escaping oil and gas, according to National Incident Commander Thad Allen. The cap will be tested by closing three separate valves that fit together snugly like pairs of fists, choking off the oil and blocking it from entering the Gulf.

BP doesn’t want the flow of oil to stop instantaneously, said Don Van Nieuwenhuise, director of Professional Geosciences Programs at the University of Houston. Blocking the oil too quickly could cause another explosion, he said.

“Rather than like a train running into a brick wall, it’ll be more like putting the brakes on slowly,” he said. “That’s what they’re aiming for. You can keep the brakes on and everyone arrives alive, or you hit the wall and have big problems.”

Even if the cap works, the blown-out well will continue to leak. But the newer, tighter cap will enable BP to capture all the oil, or help funnel it up to ships on the surface if necessary.

Without any cap, an estimated 1.5 million to 2.5 million gallons of black crude spews into the Gulf daily. Federal officials have estimated 88 million to 174 million gallons of oil have streamed into the Gulf’s waters since April 20, when the Deepwater Horizon drilling rig exploded, killing 11 workers.

The new cap was being positioned over the leak slowly to keep icy crystals called hydrates from forming inside the cap. Hydrates, which form when gas and water mix at low temperatures and high pressure -- as occurs at the bottom of the sea — have derailed past efforts to stop the leak by making containment domes too buoyant and preventing a tight seal.

Latest moratorium

The latest federal moratorium will halt operations at any deep-water floating facility that performs drilling.

The government still needs time to make sure oil and gas companies implement safety measures to reduce risks and are ready to handle spills, U.S. Secretary of the Interior Ken Salazar said in a statement announcing the measure, which will be effective through Nov. 30.

On May 30, Salazar ordered a six-month halt to drilling new wells deeper than 500 feet.

Last week, a federal appeals court struck down the Obama administration’s first moratorium as to heavy-handed for businesses and Gulf Coast state economies that would be harmed by the suspension.

The revised moratorium allows some drilling rigs to continue operating if they meet certain conditions, including proving that they have enough cleanup resources to respond to a potential spill.

Municipal officials and business leaders raised the same moratorium concerns to first lady Michelle Obama when she visited the Florida Panhandle Monday afternoon. She, in turn, urged tourists to visit Gulf Coast beaches free of tar balls.

“There are still thousands of miles of beaches that have not been touched by the spill,” she told about 100 people outside the Boardwalk Beach Resort in Panama City Beach, the white sand and emerald-green water glittering behind her. She later walked barefoot along the shore before visiting an ice cream parlor.

Pelicans to Miami

In South Florida, 45 pelican chicks drenched in sludge rescued from Louisiana’s coastal waters were being treated at the Pelican Harbor Seabird Station in Miami.

Three adult pelicans at the station, at 1279 NE 79th St., are tasked with teaching the chicks the ins and outs of growing up.

“This is a really critical age for them,” Kristin Castellón, the station’s rehabilitation manager, said Monday. “They need food, nutrition, and we have to limit

human contact as much as possible, so we don’t handle them or talk to them.”

Caretakers work with camouflage when feeding the birds. The flight -- and having oil coat their skins — proved to be traumatic for them. But the adult pelicans, in general, accept the newborns as their own, Castellón said.

“Some might be more nurturing than others,” she added. “We want them to be an example of how an adult pelican dives into a pool and eats.”

— Miami Herald Staff Writer Laura Figueroa reported from Panama City Beach. Staff Writers Patricia Mazzei and Howard Cohen reported from Miami. Information from the Associated Press and Los Angeles Times was included in this report.

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