WASHINGTON — BP's latest plan to capture the oil gushing from the runaway Deepwater Horizon well poses significant safety risks for "several hundred people" working aboard the ships that will process the corralled crude, the oil giant has told the Coast Guard.
In a letter dated Sunday, BP Vice President Doug Suttles said the new scheme would have three ships in place by the end of June capable of processing as much as 53,000 barrels of crude from the well a day, and by mid-July would have four ships collecting between 60,000 and 80,000 barrels a day.
Suttles cautioned, however, that the "multi-vessel containment plan" would pose health and safety risks for workers that "must be carefully managed."
"Several hundred people are working in a confined space with live hydrocarbons on up to four vessels," Suttles wrote. "This is significantly beyond both BP and industry practice."
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With so many vessels working in a relatively small area, Suttles wrote that there's a risk of a "major surface accident." Video of the site Sunday showed more than a dozen vessels on the scene; a jet of burning natural gas perhaps 200 feet long shot from one.
BP will "continue to aggressively drive schedule to minimize" the amount of oil escaping into the Gulf of Mexico, Suttles wrote, but "we must not allow this drive to compromise our number one priority, that being the health and safety of our people."
The Coast Guard released Suttles' letter Monday, the same day that the House of Representatives Subcommittee on Oversight and Investigations accused BP of cutting corners drilling the Deepwater Horizon well to save money. The panel singled out five money-saving decisions that it said probably led to the April 20 methane gas explosion that set the drilling rig on fire and killed 11 workers. The rig sank two days later, taking a mile of pipe with it and triggering the gusher that so far has defied solution.
Rear Adm. James Watson, the Coast Guard officer who's the on-scene coordinator of the Obama administration's response to the disaster, praised BP's new plan.
"After being directed to move more quickly, BP is now stepping up its efforts to contain the leaking oil," Watson said in a statement. "We have continuously demanded strategies and responses from BP that fit the realities of this catastrophic event, for which BP is responsible. We will continue to hold them accountable and bring every possible resource and innovation to bear."
Watson didn't comment on Suttles' worries about safety, however, which have been a growing concern not just for workers on the ships near the Deepwater Horizon site, but also for cleanup workers and coastal residents who might come in contact with crude oil and its vapors.
A plan that may be implemented as soon as Tuesday to burn as much as 10,000 barrels a day of crude captured by the Q4000 drilling platform also has increased concern that workers and coastal residents would be exposed to toxic gases. Suttles acknowledged in his letter that the Q4000 plan would be discontinued "for safety reasons" when the four primary ships are in place in mid-July.
Suttles' letter was a response to one that Watson wrote last Friday calling for BP to come up with a more aggressive plan. Watson said that an earlier BP plan didn't take into account new government estimates that between 20,000 and 40,000 barrels of crude, and perhaps as many as 50,000 barrels, were escaping daily from the well before June 3, when BP sheared off the well's twisted riser pipe in order to attach the containment dome that's now directing about 15,000 barrels of crude a day to the Discoverer Enterprise drilling ship.
Watson also said the BP plan took too long, with many of its proposed assets not arriving at the Deepwater Horizon site until mid-July.
In response, Suttles said that BP would move a second large drill ship, identified as either the Toisa Pisces or the Helix Producer, into position by the end of the month to collect between 20,000 and 25,000 barrels a day.
That would bring total collection capacity to 40,000-53,000 barrels a day, with the Discoverer Enterprise collecting between 15,000-18,000 barrel per day and the Q4000 burning 5,000-10,000 barrels a day.
A more permanent response would be in place in mid-July, when the second floating riser would be completed, feeding another 20,000-25,000 barrels a day to either the Toisa Pisces or the Helix Producer. A fourth ship, the Discoverer Clear Leader, would be added, with a 10,000-15,000 barrel a day capacity.
That would put four ships — the Toisa Pisces, the Helix Producer, the Discoverer Enterprise and the Discoverer Clear Leader — in position with a total capacity of between 60,000 and 80,000 barrels per day until a relief well can close the runaway well permanently. That's not expected until August at the earliest.
In outlining the plan, however, Suttles said there were several obstacles that could limit its success. In addition to an accident, he warned that "junk" that had been pumped into the well's failed blowout preventer could block hoses BP now hopes will carry oil to the surface, that those hoses, which were not designed to handle crude oil flowing continuously through them, could fail, and that flexible pipe being used to construct the new floating riser could collapse under deep water pressures.
(Marisa Taylor and Andrew Seidman contributed to this report.)
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