NEW ORLEANS – Oil spewed uncontrolled into the Gulf of Mexico for much of the day Wednesday before engineers reattached a cap being used to contain the gusher and direct some of the crude to a surface ship.
Oil began gushing when an undersea robot bumped the cap being used to contain it, forcing BP engineers to remove the device and then scramble to reattach it.
The setback left nothing to stem the flow of oil at its source. A camera recording the well showed huge clouds of black fluid coming out of the seafloor.
The logistics coordinator onboard the Discoverer Enterpriser, the ship that has been siphoning the oil, told the Associated Press that after more than 10 hours, the system was again collecting the crude.
BP later confirmed the cap was back in place, but said it had been hooked up about an hour and a half earlier. The coordinator said it would take a little time for the system to “get ramped back up.”
Most recently, the system, which has been in place since June 4, was sucking up about 29,000 gallons an hour, crude that spewed back into the Gulf on Wednesday unabated. At that rate, it could mean about 290,000 extra gallons escaped into the water before the system restarted. Another ship was still collecting a smaller amount of oil and burning it on the surface.
BP engineers removed the cap after the mishap because fluid seemed to be leaking, creating a possible safety hazard because of the flames above, and they were concerned ice-like crystals might clog it.
Bob Dudley, the BP managing director who took over the spill response from his company’s embattled CEO Wednesday, had said earlier that engineers expected to replace the cap in less than a day.
“It’s a disruption, and the crew again did exactly the right thing because they were concerned about safety,” he said. “It’s a setback, and now we will go back into operation and show how this technology can work.”
When the robot bumped into the equipment just before 10 a.m., gas rose through a vent that carries warm water down to prevent ice-like crystals from forming in the machinery, Coast Guard Adm. Thad Allen said.
Crews were checking to see if the crystals, called hydrates, had formed before attempting to put the cap back on.
Ed Overton, a professor emeritus of environmental science at Louisiana State University, said he suspects crews are pumping air into the line to flush out any water before they try to reattach the cap.
“It sounds pretty easy and straightforward, but nothing is easy and straightforward when you’re doing it remotely from a mile away,” he said.
In May, a similar problem doomed the effort to put a bigger containment device over the blown-out well. BP had to abandon the four-story box after the crystals clogged it, threatening to make it float away.
The smaller cap had worked until now. To get it to the seafloor, though, crews had to slice away a section of the leaking pipe, meaning the flow of oil could be stronger now than before.
Meanwhile, pools of oil washed up along miles of national park and Pensacola Beach shoreline, and health advisories against swimming and fishing in the once-pristine waters were extended for 33 miles east from the Alabama border.
“It’s pretty ugly, there’s no question about it,” Gov. Charlie Crist said.
The oil had a chemical stench as it baked in the afternoon heat. The beach looked as if it had been paved with a 6-foot-wide ribbon of asphalt, much different from the tar balls that washed up two weeks earlier.
“This used to be a place where you could come and forget about all your cares in the world,” said Nancy Berry, who fought back tears as she watched her two grandsons play in the sand far from the shore.