The Wicked Well is Dead, Complete Gulf Restoration Pledged

WASHINGTON, DC, September 20, 2010 (ENS) – BP and federal officials confirmed Sunday that well kill operations on the Deepwater Horizon well in the Gulf of Mexico are complete, ending the threat of more crude oil spilling from the well that exploded on April 20, causing the biggest spill in U.S. history.

The damaged well leaked more than four million barrels of oil into the Gulf of Mexico over 87 days until it was shut-in with a custom-made cap on July 15. But it still took over two months longer to finally kill the well with cement pumped in from the bottom in the so-called bottom kill that was completed Sunday.

“Today, we achieved an important milestone in our response to the BP oil spill – the final termination of the damaged well that sat deep under the Gulf of Mexico,” said President Barack Obama.

Everyone, from the President and Cabinet officials to the National Incident Commander to BP executives have pledged to continue the cleanup until restoration is complete. Oil remains on the shorelines of Louisiana and other gulf states, on the sea floor and in the water column.

BP’s Deepwater Horizon oil rig on fire in the Gulf of Mexico, just before it sank to the seafloor a mile below the surface, April 22, 2010. (Photo courtesy U.S. Coast Guard)

“While we have seen a diminished need for our massive response that encompassed more than 40,000 people, 7,000 vessels and the coordination of dozens of federal, state and local agencies and other partners, we also remain committed to doing everything possible to make sure the Gulf Coast recovers fully from this disaster,” President Obama said. “My administration will see our communities, our businesses and our fragile ecosystems through this difficult time.”

Since May 2, the relief well drill bit has been working its way down under the sea floor to a depth of 18,000 feet. On September 15, it intercepted the annulus, or outer ring, of the damaged well, also called the Macondo well. Two days later cement was pumped into the annulus from the bottom, the so-called bottom kill.

BP, the federal government scientific team and the National Incident Commander have concluded that these operations have successfully sealed the well.

“This is a significant milestone in the response to the Deepwater Horizon tragedy and is the final step in a complex and unprecedented subsea operation – finally confirming that this well no longer presents a threat to the Gulf of Mexico,” said Tony Hayward, BP Group’s outgoing chief executive.

“However, there is still more to be done. BP’s commitment to complete our work and restore the damage done to the Gulf of Mexico, the Gulf coast and the livelihoods of the people across the region remains unchanged,” Hayward said.

BP America Chairman and President Lamar McKay said, “Today’s completion of relief well operations on the Macondo well is a significant technological accomplishment and another important milestone in our continued efforts to restore the Gulf Coast.”

“Our work is not finished, however,” said McKay. “BP remains committed to remedying the harm that the spill caused to the Gulf of Mexico, the Gulf Coast environment, and to the livelihoods of the people across the region. BP will continue sharing what we have learned in an effort to prevent a tragedy like this from ever being repeated.”

Drill ships and other response vessels at the site of the Deepwater Horizon well, July 10, 2010. (Photo courtesy USCG)

Secretary of the Interior Ken Salazar and Energy Secretary Steven Chu said in a joint statement Sunday, “Though our source control mission is complete, President Obama has made it clear the administration will not rest until all the oil is cleaned up and the Gulf Coast is restored.”

National Incident Commander retired U.S. Coast Guard Admiral Thad Allen said, “After months of extensive operations planning and execution under the direction and authority of the U.S. government science and engineering teams, BP has successfully completed the relief well.”

“Additional regulatory steps will be undertaken but we can now state, definitively, that the Macondo well poses no continuing threat to the Gulf of Mexico,” Admiral Allen said.

“From the beginning, this response has been driven by the best science and engineering available,” the admiral said. “We insisted that BP develop robust redundancy measures to ensure that each step was part of a deliberate plan, driven by science, minimizing risk to ensure we did not inflict additional harm in our efforts to kill the well.”

“I commend the response personnel, both from the government and private sectors, for seeing this vital procedure through to the end,” Allen said. “And although the well is now dead, we remain committed to continue aggressive efforts to clean up any additional oil we may see going forward.”

A second relief well was drilled at the direction of the Obama administration in case of problems with the first relief well, but it was not needed.

BP will now complete the plugging and abandonment of both relief wells, dismantling and recovering containment equipment and decontaminating vessels that were in position at the wellsite.

About 25,200 personnel, more than 2,600 vessels and dozens of aircraft remain engaged in the response effort. BP, as part of the Unified Command, continues to conduct overflights and other reconnaissance to search for oil on the surface.

U.S. Coast Guard Petty Officer 1st Class Keith Frenzel watches members of a certified shoreline boom retrieval team on a vessel off the north shore of Trinity Island, Louisiana. September 11, 2010. (Photo courtesy U.S. Coast Guard)

No oily liquid has been recovered from the surface of the Gulf of Mexico since July 21 and the last controlled burn to remove spilled oil occurred on July 20.

At the spill’s peak, about 3.5 million feet of containment boom was deployed. Currently 670,000 feet of containment boom is still at locations in the gulf.

As of September 17, the cost to BP of the incident amounts to approximately $9.5 billion, including the cost of the spill response, containment, relief well drilling, static kill and cementing, grants to the gulf states, claims paid and federal costs.

On June 16, BP announced an agreed package of measures, including the creation of a $20 billion escrow account to satisfy certain obligations arising from the oil and gas spill.

On April 20 the Deepwater Horizon oil rig exploded with 126 people on board. The incident has caused massive damages – 11 men were killed, 17 others injured, and at least 2,500 spill responders have reported health problems. The spill shut down much of the gulf’s multi-million dollar seafood industry, although the federal government has now reopened some of the gulf waters to commercial and recreational fishing.

About 39,885 square miles of Gulf of Mexico federal waters remain closed to fishing; approximately 83 percent is now open.

People in other industries also lost their jobs – tourism, restaurants, real estate and construction all suffered during the spring and summer. Many have put in claims for financial compensation, but the claims process has been flawed.

On August 23, processing of claims from individuals and businesses related to the Deepwater Horizon incident transferred to the Gulf Coast Claims Facility.

To date, over 68,000 claims have been submitted to the GCCF, with over 19,000 claims totaling over $240 million being paid, including a $34.5 million fund for real estate brokers and agents.

The Gulf of Mexico became a sea of spilled oil, June 23, 2010. (Photo by Kate Davison courtesy Greenpeace)

Prior to the transfer to the Gulf Coast Claims Facility, BP had made 127,000 claims payments, totalling approximately $399 million.

Environmentally, the spill was, and still is damaging the gulf, but things could have been even worse.

A report released August 16 by the Georgia Sea Grant and the University of Georgia concluded that up to 79 percent of the oil released into the gulf has not been recovered and remains a threat to the ecosystem.

The report, authored by five marine scientists, contradicts an August 2 National Incident Command Report, which calculated an “oil budget” that was widely interpreted to suggest that only 25 percent of the oil from the spill remained.

“One major misconception is that oil that has dissolved into water is gone and, therefore, harmless,” said Charles Hopkinson, director of Georgia Sea Grant and professor of marine sciences at the University of Georgia. “The oil is still out there, and it will likely take years to completely degrade. We are still far from a complete understanding of what its impacts are.”

Hopkinson said the reports arrive at different conclusions because the Georgia scientists estimate that the vast majority of the oil classified as dispersed, dissolved or residual is still present, whereas the National Incident Command report has been interpreted to suggest that only the “residual” form of oil is still present.

Skimmer vessels attempt to contain the massive oil spill, June 24, 2010. (Photo by Daniel Beltra courtesy Greenpeace)

The University of Georgia study found two-inch thick layers of oil on the seafloor.

The Coastal Protection and Restoration Authority Chairman Garret Graves said Wednesday that these layers of oil are “potentially a huge threat during hurricane season as it could be thrust farther into our coastal ecosystem.”

He urged that local, state, federal and BP officials continue to take an aggressive approach on dealing with the oil spill. “I’m not comfortable letting down our guard until we know where all the oil is. We need to press hard until we have a crystal clear picture that the oiling vulnerability no longer exists,” he said.

On a positive note, the Georgia scientists noted that natural processes “continue to transform, dilute, degrade and evaporate the oil.”

They add that a circular current known as the Franklin Eddy is preventing the Loop Current from bringing oil-contaminated water from the gulf to the Atlantic Ocean, which bodes well for the East Coast.

Other scientists are pleased to report that no dead zones have formed in the gulf as a result of the spill.

Within 60 miles of the wellhead, dissolved oxygen levels dropped by about 20 percent from their long-term average in areas where scientists have reported subsurface oil, but these dissolved oxygen levels have stabilized and are not low enough to become “dead zones,” according to a September 7 report issued by the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration, NOAA, the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency and the White House Office of Science and Technology Policy.

Data from 419 locations sampled on multiple expeditions by nine ships over a three-month period, were analyzed for this report.

Scientists who authored the dead zone report attribute the lower dissolved oxygen levels to microbes using oxygen to consume the oil from the BP Deepwater Horizon oil spill.

National Incident Commander Admiral Thad Allen and NOAA Administrator Jane Lubchenco release cleaned Kemp’s ridley sea turtles back into the Gulf of Mexico, August 18, 2010 (Photo courtesy USCG)

The report is consistent with a study published by academic researchers led by the Woods Hole Oceanographic Institution and supported by the National Science Foundation and NOAA, who also reported no dead zones where they found subsurface oil.

The U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service reports that as of September 14, a total of 3,634 dead birds and 1,042 live birds were found in areas affected by the Deepwater Horizon spill. These numbers are subject to verification and cannot be considered final. Of the dead birds, the largest numbers are laughing gulls, followed by brown pelicans and northern gannets.

Onshore, some 110 miles of Gulf Coast shoreline is now experiencing moderate to heavy oil impacts – approximately 99 miles in Louisiana, nine miles in Mississippi and two miles in Florida.

Light to trace oil impacts are found on some 490 miles of shoreline – approximately 226 miles in Louisiana, 90 miles in Mississippi, 60 miles in Alabama, and 114 miles in Florida. These numbers are issued for daily response planning and do not include cumulative impacts to date, or shoreline that has already been cleared.

In an unprecedented sea turtle rescue operation, 278 sea turtle nests were dug from the beaches of Florida and Alabama and transported by plane and truck to NASA’s Kennedy Space Center during July and August.

Wildlife officials relocated the nests because they worried that the oil spill might endanger the hatchlings. They had planned to move about 700 nests, but the transport ended after the well was capped and the gulf appeared safe for the hatchlings in their original nesting locations.

Some 15,000 hatchlings were released from the more than 28,000 eggs that were moved to the space center. Most were loggerhead turtles, but green and Kemp’s ridley turtles were also moved. The last batch of hatchlings were released in early September.

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