Photo by Michael Buckelew
NEW ORLEANS -- BP finally choked off the flow of oil into the Gulf of Mexico on Thursday -- 85 days and up to 184 million gallons after the crisis unfolded -- then began a tense 48 hours of watching to see whether the capped-off well would hold or blow a new leak.
To the relief of millions of people along the Gulf Coast, the big, billowing brown cloud of crude at the bottom of the sea disappeared from the underwater video feed for the first time since the disaster began in April, as BP closed the last of three openings in the 75-ton cap lowered onto the well earlier this week.
''Finally!'' said Renee Brown, a 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.''
But the company stopped far short of declaring victory over the biggest offshore oil spill in U.S. history and one of the nation's worst environmental disasters, a catastrophe that has killed wildlife and threatened the livelihoods of fishermen, restaurateurs, and oil industry workers from Texas to Florida.
Now begins a waiting period during which engineers will monitor pressure gauges and watch for signs of leaks elsewhere in the well. The biggest risk: Pressure from the oil trapped under the cap could fracture the well and make the leak even worse, causing oil to spill from other spots on the sea floor.
If engineers see any sign of a new leak erupting, the cap will be reopened, allowing oil to spill into the sea again.
Even if the well holds out for the whole two days, the vents will be opened again and oil released while engineers conduct a seismic survey of the ocean floor to make sure oil and gas aren't breaking out of the well into the bedrock, said retired Coast Guard Adm. Thad Allen, the Obama administration's point man on the disaster.
''For the people living on the Gulf, I'm certainly not going to guess their emotions,'' BP vice president Kent 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.''
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,'' he said.
''I don't believe that. That's a lie. It's a (expletive) lie,'' said Stephon LaFrance, an oysterman in Louisiana's oil-stained Plaquemines Parish who has been out of work for weeks. ''I don't believe they stopped that leak. BP's trying to make their self look good.''
Billy Nungesser, president of Plaquemines Parish and an outspoken critic of the federal and corporate response to the spill, warned against complacency.