Oil spill: BP admits its latest attempt to stem the leak has failed

Saturday, May 29, 2010
By Paul Martin

BP has admitted that its latest effort to stem the 40-day flow of oil into the Gulf has failed.

By Philip Sherwell in New Orleans and Kamal Ahmed
TelegraphUK
29 May 2010

Speaking at a news conference at Fourchon Beach in Louisiana, Doug Suttles, BP’s chief operating officer, said that attempts to plug the oil leak with a mixture of mud and debris had done nothing to stem the flow. The attempt was later abandoned.

“I don’t think the amount of oil coming out has changed,” said Mr Suttles. “Just by watching it, we don’t believe it’s changed.”

He added: “After three full days, we have not been able to stop the flow. We don’t believe we’ll achieve success so we’re moving on. We have the decision to move to the next option.”

Meanwhile, a bad storm hit the area, raising fears that more oil could be blown ashore.

A company source told The Sunday Telegraph that the “top kill” tactic – the best prospect for ending the devastating leak – has been unsuccessful and that BP would now need to look at other strategies. “It seems at this stage that the ‘top kill’ has not worked,” the source said. That means the crisis is now entering a new stage as BP exhausts its preferred solutions to plug the leak.

The company last night deployed an underwater robot with a saw in an attempt to slice off the leaking pipe and place a cap and seal over the opening – an extremely complicated manoeuvre.

In practice, it now seems almost certain that the oil from the worst spill in American history is likely to continue to flow until a relief well is drilled – an operation expected to take several more weeks.

News of the latest setback came as it emerged that BP executives could face a criminal investigation into their actions.

Senior federal prosecutors and agents are taking the first steps toward a formal criminal probe. A high-level justice department team is assessing whether the company may have broken safety regulations before the disaster.

BP already faces a welter of civil damages lawsuits as a result of the April 20 explosion that killed 11 workers on the Deepwater Horizon drilling rig.

The investigators have been conducting interviews in Louisiana and warned attorneys for BP and Transocean, the rig’s owner, that they should retain all documents and other internal records relevant to the spill.

The company has been informed of the inquiry, which is a standard preliminary step before prosecutors decide whether to launch a criminal investigation.

For BP, the moment of make or break is fast approaching as public anger rises rapidly. If oil continues to pour into the ocean at the current rate for several weeks it will be devastating to the company.

But anger with the US government is also high – forcing President Barack Obama to visit the coast on Friday. In the beleaguered resort of Grand Isle, he stood on a beach closed to the public and pledged his solidarity with residents, saying he was ordering a tripling of manpower in areas hit by the spill.

BP has been fighting a slick of 130 miles by 70 miles with burn-offs and chemical dispersants, but the first oil has started washing ashore in the fragile ecosystem of the bayou (coastal marshes).

And what Mr Obama’s choreographed four-hour visit did not show him was the most damaging impact on the waters of the Gulf of Mexico and those crucial wetlands.

A couple of miles away, where Frank Lensmyer’s small fishing boat bobbed amid patches of ugly fudge-coloured oil in Barataria Bay, it was the silence and stillness that was the most disturbing.

At this time of year, the waters here should be churning with trout and redfish chasing shrimp; large pods of porpoises elegantly rising from the waves, and terns and pelicans swooping on prey.

Home to dozens of offshore oil rigs, the bay would also normally be dotted with large shrimping trawlers and dozens of craft carrying sports fishermen preparing to celebrate Memorial Day weekend, the traditional start of the summer season.

But the waters are closed to fishing. And as Mr Lensmyer, a cigar-chomping tugboat owner, gave The Sunday Telegraph a tour of this unnaturally empty expanse, the only other vessels were those deployed by the British oil giant BP in the battle to contain the spill.

From his boat, 60 miles south of New Orleans, the only signs of life were a few seabirds and the occasional porpoise skirting oil. A chemical-like odour stung the throat.

“These waters should be jumping with fish and shrimp, and there’s just nothing there,” said Mr Lensmyer, 55, as he surveyed the desolate scene. “I’ve been fishing here for 25 years and I’ve never seen anything like this. It’s very, very sad. You would normally look out here and see dozens of fishing and shrimping boats fishing. Now it’s just us.”

Our journey out to the bay had brought home the spill’s impact on the bayou marshes as we passed large clumps of reeds clogged with oil.

“This is a disaster on many levels,” said Larry Schweiger, president of the National Wildlife Federation (NWF). “About 90 per cent of gulf fishing is dependent on these wetlands. Fish spawn here, blue crabs and other sea life which are a key part of the food chain rely on the marshes, the oyster and shrimp populations rely on healthy wetlands.”

The disappearing bayou is also a crucial protective barrier from storms for communities such as New Orleans. For a population still recovering from Hurricane Katrina, the implications are understood.

The damage here is insidious – and devastating to the livelihoods and lifestyles of the gulf’s residents. The chilling lack of life that is so evident to the human eye is explained by the fact that larger fish, the porpoises and the birds have headed away from the stink and pollution of the spill.

Deep-water cameras sent out on an NWF boat last week showed reefs that should be teeming with fish were near devoid of life but thick with oil globules. Scientists believe much of the plume has never even reached the surface. “When things are this bad, the larger fish get out of town,” said Dr Martin O’Connell, director of fish research at the University of New Orleans. But the oysters and shrimp in polluted areas will not have escaped, nor will smaller fish and other organisms that rely on the wetlands for survival. “The impact on the food chain will be felt for many years.”

BP has laid thousands of miles of absorbent booms in an operation commanded by the US Coast Guard. But in many cases, the barriers are already soaked with oil and were apparently put down too late to protect the marshes.

The US Geological Survey on Thursday estimated that between 12,000 and 19,000 barrels has spilled into the gulf each day after the rig explosion on April 20. The figure is significantly higher than the previous 5,000 barrels per day estimate reached by government oceanic scientists and used by BP. It translated to between 18 and 28 million barrels – exceeding the 11 million gallons that gushed out of the Exxon Valdez tanker off Alaska in 1989.

BP’s chief executive, Tony Hayward, was forced to admit on Friday that the leak was an “environmental catastrophe”. He had previously been excoriated by the US media for referring to the spill as “tiny” relative to the size of the gulf.

For the residents of the gulf, that debate is about much more than numbers. Mr Lensmyer knows there will be no chance for the foreseeable future to fish for the speckled trout he should be landing. As a sign held up by a woman in Grand Isle during Mr Obama’s visit declared: “I’d rather be fishing”.

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