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Aug 6, 2010 8:45 AM by Sharlee Barriere

Final Plug Nears After Crews Cement Oil Well's Top

ON THE GULF OF MEXICO (AP) - Crews moved closer to a final seal
on BP's blown-out oil well in the Gulf of Mexico after pumping
fresh cement into the top of the well to hold down mud that is
stopping the seafloor gusher.
Engineers poured in cement Thursday to complete a plug at the
top of the wellbore, called a static kill, and planned to wait at
least a day for it to harden. Once that's done, crews can work on
injecting more mud and cement into the bottom of well from deep
underground to form a final and lasting plug.
That static kill procedure started Tuesday with engineers
pumping enough mud down the top of the well to push the crude back
to its underground source for the first time since an oil rig
exploded 50 miles off the Louisiana coast on April 20, killing 11
workers and triggering the massive spill.
But more than three month's after BP's blowout, much of the
crude still in the Gulf and coastal areas has permeated deep into
marshes and wetlands, complicating cleanup.
Crews are still finding plenty of crude in those interior areas,
even as government officials say spotting oil from the air on the
Gulf's surface is taking longer on each trip.
"The good news is people are seeing less oil, but the bad news
is the oil trapped in the marshes is moving out with the tides and
sticking on the marsh cane," said Maura Wood, an oceanographer
with the National Wildlife Foundation, on a boat trip to the
marshes of Pass-A-Loutre, La. "And that could kill it."
The sometimes frustrating search for oil underscores the
difficulties facing the small army of federal officials and cleanup
crews tasked with purging what remains. Rear Adm. Paul Zukunft, the
government's on-scene coordinator, said he's had to spend a growing
amount of his time taking flights over the Gulf to search for the
remaining crude.
"There is very little observable oil out there," he said,
saying that Coast Guard responders are not seeing much on the
surface. But he added: "We can't turn a blind eye ... If we don't
see oil, I'm not assuming it doesn't exist."
After the cement in the oil well dries, the last step begins:
Finishing the drilling of the last 100 feet of the relief well,
which government officials said will be used to seal the
underground reservoir from the bottom with mud and cement.
"This is not the end, but it will virtually assure us that
there will be no chance of oil leaking into the environment,"
retired Coast Guard Adm. Thad Allen, who oversees the spill
response for the government, said in Washington.
The progress was another bright spot as the tide appeared to be
turning in the monthslong battle to contain the oil, with a federal
report this week indicating that only about a quarter of the
spilled crude remains in the Gulf and is degrading quickly.
Despite the progress on the static kill, BP PLC executives and
federal officials won't declare the threat dashed until they use
the relief well - though lately they haven't been able to publicly
agree on its role.
Federal officials including Allen have insisted that crews will
shove mud and cement through the 18,000-foot relief well, which
should be completed within weeks. Crews can't be sure the area
between the inner piping and outer casing has been plugged until
the relief well is complete, he said.
But for reasons unclear, BP officials have in recent days
refused to commit to pumping cement down the relief well, saying
only that it will be used in some fashion. BP officials have not
elaborated on other options, but those could include using the well
simply to test whether the reservoir is plugged.
The vast oil reservoir beneath the well could still be worth
billions of dollars even after it spewed crude into the Gulf of
Mexico for more than three months, but BP isn't saying whether it
plans to cash in on this potential windfall.
BP insisted Thursday it had no plans to use it or its two relief
wells to produce oil. But the company won't comment on the
possibility of drilling in the same block of sea floor someday or
selling the rights to the entire tract to another oil company.
Whether the well is considered sealed yet or not, there's still
oil in the Gulf or on its shores - nearly 53 million gallons of it,
according to the report released Wednesday by the Interior
Department and the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration.
That's still nearly five times the size of the Exxon Valdez
spill, which wreaked environmental havoc in Alaska in 1989.
But almost three-quarters of the nearly 207 million gallons of
oil that leaked overall has been collected at the well by a
temporary containment cap, been cleaned up or chemically dispersed,
or naturally deteriorated, evaporated or dissolved, the report
said.
Some residents are worried that now that the well has flatlined,
the nation's attention will shift from the coast.
"I'm losing trust in the whole system," said Willie Davis, a
41-year-old harbormaster in Pass Christian, Miss. "If they don't
get up off their behinds and do something now, it's gonna be years
before we're back whole again."
In Pass-A-Loutre, where oil still clung stubbornly to marsh
cane, each day's high tide picks up the goo and leaks it back into
the ocean. But Jeremy Ingram, the Coast Guard official who oversees
cleanup crews here, said it's cleaner than it was when he arrived
60 days ago. Back then, he said, he couldn't even see water through
the thick ooze.
"I'd say it's a lot less than what was here, but if you see on
the canes it's still heavily saturated with oil. So the job's not
done yet, there's still a lot more work to get done," he said.
"As the tide comes up and washes oil off that cane, somebody and
some thing has to be here to catch it."

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