NEW ORLEANS - A tightly fitted cap was successfully keeping oil from gushing into the Gulf of Mexico for the first time in three months, BP said Thursday.
The victory — long awaited by weary residents along the coast — is the most significant milestone yet in BP’s effort to control one of the worst environmental disasters in U.S. history.
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The news elicited joy mixed with skepticism from wary Gulf Coast residents following months of false starts, setbacks and failed attempts. Alabama Gov. Bob Riley’s face lit up when he heard the oil flow had stopped.
“That’s great. I think a lot of prayers were answered today,” said Riley.
The stoppage came 85 days, 16 hours and 25 minutes after the first report April 20 of an explosion on the BP-leased Deepwater Horizon oil rig that killed 11 workers and triggered the spill.
“Finally!” said Renee Brown, a 35-year-old middle school guidance counselor visiting Pensacola Beach, Fla., from London, Ky.“Honestly, I’m surprised that they haven’t been able to do something sooner, though.” Kent Wells, a BP PLC vice president, said at a news briefing that oil stopped flowing into the water at 2:25 p.m. CDT after engineers gradually dialed down the amount of crude escaping through the last of three valves in the 75-ton cap.
Now begins a waiting period to see if the cap can hold the oil without blowing a new leak in the well. Engineers will monitor pressure readings incrementally for up to 48 hours before reopening the cap while they decide what to do.
“For the people living on the Gulf, I’m certainly not going to guess their emotions,” Wells said. “I hope they’re encouraged there’s no oil going into the Gulf of Mexico. But we have to be careful. Depending on what the test shows us, we may need to open this well back up.”
Though not a permanent fix, the solution has been the only one that has worked to stem the flow of oil since April. BP is drilling two relief wells so it can pump mud and cement into the leaking well in hopes of plugging it for good by mid-August.
BP has struggled to contain the spill and had so far been successful only in reducing the flow, not stopping it. The company removed an old, leaky cap and installed the new one Monday.
Between 93.5 million and 184.3 million have already spilled into the Gulf, according to federal estimates.
For some, it was hard to believe the flow had really stopped.
“Completely?” asked Michelle Blanchard, the wife of a shrimper in Chauvin, La., when she heard about the oil stopping from an AP reporter. “Come on,” she said in disbelief. “It’s a good thing it stopped. I’m excited,” she said.
They’ve gotten our hopes up so many times before that in my mind I don’t think it’s going to be over until Christmas.” Nine-year-old Lena Durden threw up her hands in jubilation when her mother told her the oil was stopped.
“God, that’s wonderful,” said Yvonne Durden, a Mobile-area native who now lives in Seattle and brought her daughter to the coast for a visit. “When came here so she could swim in the water and see it in case it’s not here next time.” Chris Roberts, a councilman from coastal Jefferson Parish welcomed the news.
“Everyone has waited on edge for this day to come,” said Roberts, whose district includes the devastated tourist town of Grand Isle. “There is a lot of oil remaining. Our focus will be to clean up the impacted areas and make the many impacted industries whole as quickly as possible.”
Retired Coast Guard Adm. Thad Allen, the Obama administration’s point man on the disaster, said at a briefing it’s not clear yet whether the cap, which was mounted on the well Monday, will ultimately be used to shut in the oil or to channel it through pipes to collection ships overhead.
Randall Luthi, president of the Washington, D.C.-based National Ocean Industries Association, a national trade group representing the offshore petroleum industry, said it gives everyone a chance to focus on how to clean up the spill.
“This is by far the best news we’ve heard in 86 days. You can bet that industry officials and their families are taking a big sigh here. We hope this is a reliable fix to the immediate flow of oil until the relief wells are completed.”