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Gulf oil spill: BP starts last leg of relief well [Updated]

August 6, 2010 | 12:19 pm

BP resumed work Friday on the drilling operation meant to spell the ultimate end of its notorious gulf well as it continued to scale back its massive cleanup operation.

“We’re far from finished,” said Doug Suttles, the company’s outgoing cleanup chief. “But clearly we feel like we’re moving to a new phase because it has been three weeks since we’ve seen oil flowing into the sea and there is no recoverable oil on the water.”

It has been a landmark week for BP, which succeeded in plugging its deep-sea well with mud and then concrete, effectively shutting it down more than three months after the Deepwater Horizon rig exploded and began a slow-motion environmental disaster.

Friday, BP was waiting for the concrete to dry, after which it would administer pressure tests to make sure the plug was holding.“They’ve put a layer of fluid on top of the cement and then put more mud on top of that to press it down, to help add pressure to help cure the cement,” retired Coast Guard Adm. Thad Allen, who is in charge of the spill response, said Friday. “That will be going on for 24 hours through today. They will then start pressure testing to make sure the cement is set and is holding in the well.”

In the meantime, the company resumed work on the relief well operation that Allen has insisted must be completed before the ruptured BP well is considered “killed.”

That final, meticulously executed phase is expected to take a week, possibly longer, as BP drills the remaining 100 feet of the relief bore in 30-foot increments. When the drill bites into the outer portion of the damaged well, mud and cement will be pumped into the space, called the annulus.

Allen has previously said that after the annulus was filled, the relief drill would then have to pierce the inner well casing and fill that. But Friday, Allen said engineers believe this week’s cementing, poured through the top of the well, has plugged the casing bottom. If BP confirms that with pressure readings, the bottom of BP’s blown-out well could be permanently sealed by the end of next week.

At its peak, BP’s response effort included roughly 40,000 workers, about 6,000 vessels and the placement of more than 15 million feet of boom. As of Thursday, the company had let go 8,400 of those workers and retrieved more than 100,000 feet of boom.

[For the record, 3:30 p.m.: An earlier version of this post incorrectly said BP had let go 18,000 workers.] 

Beach-cleaning machines have begun to replace teams that had been scooping up oil and tar balls by hand. And BP is winding down its Vessels of Opportunity Program, which contracted private boats to skim and burn offshore oil and help with wildlife rescue.

Suttles emphasized, however, that “our cleanup activities are still substantial. We still have tens of thousands of people out there cleaning shorelines.”

Louisiana parish presidents planned to meet with BP officials Friday afternoon to ensure “that we have enough resources and assets available to get the job done; there’s still plenty of oil in the marshes,” said Kurt Fromherz, spokesman for Plaquemines Parish President Billy Nungesser.

Suttles, who returned to his role as chief operating officer for BP Exploration and Production in Houston, was replaced by Micheal J. Utsler.

-- Bettina Boxall, reporting from Los Angeles, and Louis Sahagun, reporting from New Orleans.

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