NEW ORLEANS, Louisiana (AFP) –
Using underwater robots, BP engineers worked on Sunday to replace a cap over a gushing oil well in the Gulf of Mexico as part of a new attempt to contain the worst environmental disaster in US history.
The old cap loosely covering the well was removed by the robots on Saturday as the first step in the operation.
A fleet of about 400 skimmers crowded around the well site to boost shoreline defense during the complex operation, BP said, as the oil giant struggled to put an end to the damaging spill.
"Over the next four to seven days, depending on how things go, we should get that sealing cap on. That's our plan," BP senior vice president Kent Wells told reporters.
"We've been 24/7 since the beginning and that will continue until the end," he said Saturday evening.
The cap aims to provide a temporary solution to the devastating spill triggered after the BP-leased Deepwater-Horizon rig exploded and sank nearly three months ago.
An estimated 35,000 to 60,000 barrels of oil (1.5 million to 2.5 million gallons) has been gushing out of the ruptured well each day, and the current containment system has captured around 25,000 barrels every 24 hours.
BP says the new cap and the addition of the Helix Producer containment ship will raise capacity to 60,000 to 80,000 barrels (2.5 million to 3.4 million gallons) a day -- in effect halting the leak that has imperiled wildlife and livelihoods across the Gulf Coast.
"This new sealing cap has not been deployed at these depths or under these conditions, and there can be no assurance that the sealing cap will be successfully installed or installed within the anticipated timeframe," BP warned in a statement.
No permanent solution is expected until the first of two relief wells is completed in order to inject drilling fluids into the gushing well and then seal it for good with cement.
BP engineers were manipulating the undersea robots nearly a mile (1,600 meters) below the surface, rushing to take advantage of about a week of expected favorable weather conditions in the spill area.
They were working to remove a bolted flange, a rib-like assembly that must be taken out in order to install another piece of equipment -- known as a flanged spool -- over the drill pipe and connect it to the new containment dome.
On Saturday evening, Wells said a "torque tool" was being used to loosen the first of six bolts on the flange, and that BP hoped all six would be removed by Sunday.
Once the top flange is removed, BP has to push together two sections of drill pipe in the well head, experts said.
Then a flange transition spool will be lowered on top of the flange using a crane.
After the spool is in place, the new cap can be positioned.
Wells said the Helix Producer container ship was also undergoing final tests and should begin capturing some of the leaking oil from the well on Sunday.
"We expect it to start ramping up collection tomorrow and it'll ramp up probably over a three-day period to get up to its full capacity," he said.
A containment ship that was connected to the old cap, the Discovery Enterprise, has been removed from the site, but will return once the new cap is in place.
A third ship, the Q4000, was expected to continue siphoning up some 8,000 barrels a day during the installation of the new containment device.
BP has stressed that back-up options are available, including a new "top hat" containment system.
"We always have backups for our backups," Wells said.
Workers have boosted skimming activity to collect spilled oil and a dispersant "wand" has been placed inside the free-flowing riser pipe to allow the gushing crude to be broken up deep below the sea.
The existing cap, installed over a month ago, allowed some oil to continue escaping because it was fitted loosely fitted over a jagged well pipe.
Some 2.1 to 4.1 million barrels of oil have spilled into the Gulf waters and experts warn it will be years, if not decades, before it stops washing up on shore.
Coast Guard Admiral Thad Allen said he had approved the latest plans Friday because they will provide for "far greater" containment capacity than current systems.
Oil has now washed up on beaches in all five Gulf states -- Texas, Louisiana, Mississippi, Alabama and Florida -- forcing fishing grounds to be closed and threatening scores of coastal communities with financial ruin.
RIO DE JANEIRO – An Air France passenger jet headed from Rio to Paris made an emergency landing in northeastern Brazil on Saturday night due to a bomb threat.
All 405 passengers and 18 crew members were safely evacuated from Air France Flight 443, said Jorge Andrade, a spokesman for airport authority Infraero.
A spokesman for Air France in Brazil said the bomb threat was phoned in to Rio's international airport by a female voice about 30 minutes after the plane took off.
The control tower contacted the jet and the decision was made to land in Recife, the Air France spokesman said. He spoke on condition of anonymity because he was not authorized to discuss the matter.
The spokesman said authorities had not found any explosives and the jet was expected to be cleared to continue to Paris.
However, Infraero, in an early Sunday statement, said the plane had yet to be cleared and that passengers were being taken to hotels until the jet was ready to continue, indicating it was unlikely to resume its flight to Paris until Sunday morning.
Solange Argenta, an Infraero spokeswoman at the Recife airport, said the flight took off at 4:20 p.m. (3:20 p.m. EDT; 1920 GMT) and that the plane landed in Recife at 7:53 p.m. (6:53 p.m. EDT; 2253 GMT).
Infraero said in a statement that after landing in Recife, the jet taxied to a secluded area of the airport and those on board were quickly removed. The airport was closed for about 30 minutes, and then reopened.
Flight 443 was on the same route as an Air France jet that crashed last June off Brazil's northeastern coast, killing all 228 on board. While no definite cause has been determined in the crash, authorities have repeatedly ruled out foul play.
NEW ORLEANS – Robotic submarines working a mile underwater removed a leaking cap from the gushing Gulf oil well Saturday, starting a painful trade-off: Millions more gallons of crude will flow freely into the sea for at least two days until a new seal can be mounted to capture all of it.
There's no guarantee for such a delicate operation deep below the water's surface, officials said, and the permanent fix of plugging the well from the bottom remains slated for mid-August.
"It's not just going to be, you put the cap on, it's done. It's not like putting a cap on a tube of toothpaste," Coast Guard spokesman Capt. James McPherson said.
Robotic submarines removed the cap that had been placed on top of the leak in early June to collect the oil and send it to surface ships for collection or burning. BP aims to have the new, tighter cap in place as early as Monday and said that, as of Saturday night, the work was going according to plan.
If tests show it can withstand the pressure of the oil and is working, the Gulf region could get its most significant piece of good news since the April 20 explosion on the BP-leased Deepwater Horizon rig, which killed 11 workers.
"Over the next four to seven days, depending on how things go, we should get that sealing cap on. That's our plan," said Kent Wells, a BP senior vice president, of the round-the-clock operation.
It would be only a temporary solution to the catastrophe that the federal government estimates has poured between 87 million and 172 million gallons of oil into the Gulf as of Saturday. Hope for permanently plugging the leak lies with two relief wells, the first of which should be finished by mid-August.
With the cap removed Saturday at 12:37 p.m. CDT, oil flowed freely into the water, collected only by the Q4000 surface vessel, with a capacity of about 378,000 gallons. That vessel should be joined Sunday by the Helix Producer, which has more than double the Q4000's capacity.
But the lag could be long enough for as much as 5 million gallons to gush into already fouled waters. Officials said a fleet of large skimmers was scraping oil from the surface above the well site.
The process begun Saturday has two major phases: removing equipment currently on top of the leak and installing new gear designed to fully contain the flow of oil.
BP began trying Saturday afternoon to remove the bolted top flange that only partially completed the seal with the old cap. Video images showed robotic arms working to unscrew its bolts. Wells said that could last into Monday depending on whether the flange can be pulled off from above, as BP hopes. If not, a specially designed tool will be used to pry apart the top and bottom flanges.
Once the top flange is removed, BP has to bind together two sections of drill pipe that are in the gushing well head. Then a 12-foot-long piece of equipment called a flange transition spool will be lowered and bolted over it.
The second piece of pipe inside the well head came as something of a surprise, and raises the possibility that one of the sections of pipe became jammed in the Deepwater Horizon's blowout preventer, though which the well pipes run. The failure of the blowout preventer, a massive piece of equipment designed to stop the unchecked flow of oil, is partly to blame for the size of the spill.
"That will be an important question to ask when we pull the blowout preventer up to the surface and we'll figure out where that pipe ultimately landed," Wells said.
After the flange transition spool is bolted in place, the new cap — called a capping stack or "Top Hat 10" — can be lowered. The equipment, weighing some 150,000 pounds, is designed to fully seal the leak and provide connections for new vessels on the surface to collect oil. The cap has valves that can restrict the flow of oil and shut it in, if it can withstand the enormous pressure.
That will be one of the key items for officials to monitor, said Paul Bommer, a professor of petroleum engineering at the University of Texas at Austin.
"If the new cap does work and they shut the well in, it is possible that part of the well could rupture if the pressure inside builds to an unacceptable value," Bommer wrote in an e-mail Saturday.
Ultimately, BP wants to have four vessels collecting oil within two or three weeks of the new cap's installation. If the new cap doesn't work, BP is ready to place a backup similar the old one on top of the leak.
The government estimates 1.5 million to 2.5 million gallons of oil a day are spewing from the well, and the previous cap collected about 1 million gallons of that. With the new cap and the new containment vessel, the system will be capable of capturing 2.5 million to 3.4 million gallons — essentially all the leaking oil, officials said.
The plan, which was accelerated to take advantage of a window of good weather lasting seven to 10 days, didn't inspire confidence in the residents of the oil-slicked coast.
"This is probably the sixth or seventh method they've tried, so, no, I'm not optimistic," said Deano Bonano, director of emergency preparedness for Jefferson Parish.
On Saturday he was inspecting beaches at Grand Isle lined with protective boom and bustling with heavy equipment used to scoop up and clean stained sand.
"Even if they turn it off today, we'll still be here at least another six weeks, on watch for the oil," he said.
"Shutting off the oil is a very important step, but we should not assume this disaster is over," said Larry Schweiger, president of the National Wildlife Federation. "I think it's important to recognize that there's an enormous amount of oil still in the Gulf."
Associated Press Writer Holbrook Mohr in Belle Chase, La. contributed to this report.