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Gulf oil spill: Effort to contain spill stalls

June 2, 2010 |  8:22 am

A diamond-edged industrial saw being used to carve through mangled piping in an effort to cap the well spewing oil into the Gulf of Mexico became stuck today midway through its mission, delaying BP officials’ hopes of stanching the worst oil spill in U.S. history.

Coast Guard Adm. Thad Allen, commander of the national response to the spill, announced the latest setback at a morning briefing in Shriever, La., amid new reports of oil being found in the Mississippi Sound and parts of Alabama. Allen said the stuck saw was a problem that could be fixed. Officials were discussing whether to lower another saw into the water or to try to nudge the mangled marine riser pipe to free up the saw, he said.

“The goal is later on today to finish that cut and to be able to put a containment device over the well head,” said Allen.

The stuck saw is the latest in a series of setbacks in the attempt to stop this environmental disaster, which has been unfolding since April 20 and is not expected to be fully halted for months -- until after relief wells being dug by BP are completed. An initial effort to stop the spill by plunging a mud mixture into the well failed last week, leading to the current effort, being performed by BP robots.

Allen said overnight a "shear cut" was successfully made to the riser pipe but that the saw needed to complete a second cut became stuck. Because the key to placing a tight cap onto the well head is a clean cutting away of the pipes connecting the well head to the drilling unit, Allen said the next step was crucial.  “The clearer the cut, the tighter the seal we can put over it,” he said. “If we don’t get as clean a cut as we want, they have to put a wider cap on it.”

That would reduce the effectiveness of the seal, which was never seen as a means of completely stopping  the leak to begin with. Rather, it was considered a temporary method until the relief wells are finished.

In the meantime, Allen said chemicals were being deployed to disperse the additional oil coming out of the newly sheared piping, a problem BP officials had warned would be a temporary result of this effort at least until they could get the cap in place.

-- Tina Susman, reporting from New Orleans