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BP forces cement into Gulf oil well

Plug closes off leak, but isn’t the last step

LOS ANGELES – It took BP a mere five hours to pump a stream of cement down the throat of its troublesome well Thursday, finishing another major step in its final push to end the Gulf catastrophe and forever shut down the source of the nation’s largest offshore oil spill.

After jamming the deep-sea well with heavy drilling mud earlier this week, the company began shooting cement down the well at 10:15 a.m. EDT. At 3:15, it issued a two-paragraph statement announcing that it had finished the task and was monitoring the well “to confirm the effectiveness of the procedure.”

Although the cementing should permanently plug at least part of the deep-sea well bore, federal officials have stressed that it does not close the chapter on the broken well, which will go into the record books as the cause of one of the nation’s biggest modern environmental disasters.

“This is not the end,” said retired Coast Guard Adm. Thad Allen, who is overseeing the spill operation. “But it will virtually assure us there will be no chance of oil leaking into the environment.”

When the newly poured cement is dry, Allen said, BP will finish drilling a relief well that will pierce the base of the damaged well and entomb it with more mud and cement.

The final 100 feet of relief drilling will be conducted in increments, as engineers painstakingly aim at a pipe that is buried miles under the seabed.

It will probably be mid-August before the relief operation is over and the well has been officially “killed.”

“I am the national incident commander. I issue the orders. This will not be done until we complete the bottom,” Allen declared Thursday morning as the cementing was under way.

Since the well 50 miles off the Louisiana coast was mechanically capped three weeks ago, no oil has leaked into the Gulf. Slicks have shrunk substantially; offshore cleanup crews are shifting to coastal areas.

“There is very little observable oil out there,” Rear Adm. Paul Zunkunft, the federal on-scene coordinator, said in a news briefing. Nor, he added, is underwater testing finding much evidence of hydrocarbons.

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