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Gulf oil spill: Attempt to lift blowout preventer to start next week

August 27, 2010 | 11:45 am

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Engineers in the Gulf of Mexico have abandoned efforts to fish out pieces of drill pipe stuck in the damaged Macondo well and early next week will begin trying to remove the blowout preventer -- a crucial step in finally sealing the well.

On Friday, Coast Guard Adm. Thad Allen ordered preparations to begin over the weekend for the procedure, which will involve removing the capping stack installed in July and exerting up to 80,000 pounds of pressure to lift out the blowout preventer, set it temporarily on the ocean floor and quickly replace it with a new device that can be permanently sealed into the well. (Click here to download Adm. Allen's order.)

If it can’t be lifted off with this “gentle tug,” Allen said, operators will have to disassemble piece by piece the ram devices atop the device to get it out, a process that could delay the removal.

Coast Guard officials still hope to meet their post-Labor Day timeline for finally shutting down the troubled well, which on April 20 exploded after the blowout preventer apparently failed and released 4.9 million gallons of oil into the Gulf.

Allen said engineers hope to begin drilling the final 50 feet of a relief well to intercept the damaged well on Sept. 7 or 8. That will take about four days, after which a final load of mud and cement can be pumped into the well to put an end to the four-month-long recovery effort.

“As it stands right now, it’s looking pretty good the week after Labor Day for the intercept of the well, Allen said. “Let me say one more time, and I cannot say it enough, this is conditions-based.”

Bad weather or the need to manually open the rams could delay the timeline, he said. The entire process is being overseen by criminal investigators from the U.S. Justice Department and the U.S. Coast Guard investigation team, which have representatives out at the drilling site to collect evidence to determine potential criminal liability for the spill.

Meanwhile, federal authorities announced they have reopened 4,281 square miles of federal waters off the coast of western Louisiana for fishing. No oil has been observed in the area since July, and authorities will continue aggressive testing of seafood to make sure there is no contamination. None has been detected in reopened waters so far, said Jane Lubchenco, administrator of the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration.

An additional 48,000 square miles -- about 20% of the federal waters in the Gulf -- remain closed to fishing, including many of the waters off the coast of Alabama. Lubchenco said that while federal scientists are confident of the safety of seafood being caught, they are less certain about what effects the oil may have had on eggs or larval fish and shellfish. Those studies are ongoing and could take some time, she said.

“We feel completely confident that the seafood that is in the market now is safe for human consumption, safe and free from contaminants from the spill, and we will continue to investigate the longer-term impacts this spill may have had,” she said.

-- Kim Murphy in New Orleans

Photo: The Development Driller III is drilling the primary relief well. Credit: Gerald Herbert / Associated Press

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