NEW ORLEANS – Crews took another step toward readying the relief well expected to finally kill the Gulf of Mexico oil gusher, removing the plug they had popped in before clearing the area ahead of Tropical Storm Bonnie last week, federal officials said Wednesday.
They also said a temporary cap on the busted well is holding firm and there is very little oil sheen on the water's surface 100 days after the rig explosion that triggered the worst offshore oil spill in U.S. history.
Retired Coast Guard Adm. Thad Allen, the government's oil spill chief, said during a news conference in New Orleans that officials are taking every precaution as they move toward a permanent fix.
"We have always asked for a backup plan for the backup plan," he said. "This relief well, while it is deep, it is something that has been done before. Obviously the depth is an issue here. But we are confident we are going to get this thing done."
The Deepwater Horizon oil rig leased and operated by BP exploded and caught fire on April 20, killing 11 workers. The well spewed for 85 days, fouling marshes, killing wildlife and threatening the livelihoods of thousands of Gulf residents.
Drilling the relief well has been a monthslong task, and BP had used several other techniques to stop the leak that had never been attempted before in mile-deep waters. Some were utter failures and none was totally successful until a carefully fitted cap was placed over the well and the leak stopped in mid-July.
The cap has stopped the flow but is only a temporary measure while crews finish the relief well that will plug up the gusher from below.
The work had to stop last week because of Tropical Storm Bonnie, which passed through in weakened form without doing any major damage.
Now that the plug is out, the relief well must be flushed out with drilling mud before casing can be dropped in and cemented. All that should be done around Monday, Allen said, though he cautioned that was just an estimate.
Once everything is in place, crews will begin a procedure known as a static kill, pumping heavy mud straight down the well though the temporary cap and failed blowout preventer. If the well casing is intact, the mud will force the oil back down into the natural petroleum reservoir. Then workers will pump in cement to seal the casing.
The static kill is on track for completion some time next week. Then comes the "bottom kill," where the relief well will be used to pump in mud and cement; that process will take days or weeks, depending on the success of the static kill.
"The static kill will go a long way from closing the well in, but the only way to kill the well is from the bottom," said Allen.
In other oil spill-related news Wednesday:
• Allen said he will be meeting with Louisiana parish officials Thursday about deploying resources, equipment and boom over the coming months. More than 11 million feet of boom, 811 oil skimmers, 22 countries and 40,000 people are part of the oil spill response.
• A new report from the National Resources Defense Council said that Gulf beaches from Louisiana to the Florida Panhandle have been closed or slapped with health warnings, nearly 10 times more often this summer than last because of oil from BP's massive deepwater leak, according to a report Wednesday by a national environmental group.