NEW ORLEANS – Engineers had to completely uncap the broken oil well spewing into the Gulf of Mexico Wednesday after an undersea robot bumped into machinery being used to collect the spilled fuel. Hundreds of thousands of gallons more poured into the water as crews scrambled to replace a critical component.
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The mishap left nothing to stem the flow of oil at its source. A camera recording the well showed huge clouds of black fluid coming out of the sea floor. It was not clear how long workers would need to replace the cap, which took weeks to install.
Bob Dudley, the managing director of BP who is taking over the spill response, said engineers expected to replace the cap in less than a day.
"It's a disruption, and the crew again did exactly the right thing because they were concerned about safety," he said. "It's a setback, and now we will go back into operation and show how this technology can work."
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Without the cap, the only means of collecting the oil was a ship at the surface that is sucking up oil and burning it.
The problem, yet another in the nine-week effort to stop the gusher, came as thick pools of oil washed up on Pensacola Beach in Florida, and the Obama administration sought to resurrect a six-month moratorium on deepwater drilling.
The current worst-case estimate of what's spewing into the Gulf is about 2.5 million gallons a day. Anywhere from 67 million to 127 million gallons have spilled since the April 20 explosion on the Deepwater Horizon rig that killed 11 workers and blew out the well 5,000 feet underwater. BP PLC was leasing the rig from owner Transocean Ltd.
When the robot bumped into the equipment just before 10 a.m., gas rose through a vent that carries warm water down to prevent ice-like crystals from forming in the machinery, Coast Guard Adm. Thad Allen said.
Crews were checking to see if the crystals called hydrates had formed before attempting to put the cap back on.
Ed Overton, a professor emeritus of environmental science at Louisiana State University, said he suspects crews are pumping air into the line to flush out any water before they try to reattach the cap. He speculated doing so would take less than two days.
"I certainly would be surprised if it took any longer than that," he said. "It sounds pretty easy and straightforward, but nothing is easy and straightforward when you're doing it remotely from a mile away."
Before the problem arose, the containment cap had collected about 700,000 gallons of oil in 24 hours and sucked it up to a ship on the surface. All of that oil — about 29,000 gallons an hour — is now gushing into the Gulf again.
Another 438,000 gallons was burned on the surface by the other system that was not affected by the cap problem. BP is also developing a system to pull oil up to a second ship that should be in place by the end of the month, Nicholas said.
"Today we learned that the containment system was damaged and had to be removed, leaving the well totally uncapped and gushing oil into the Gulf once again," said Republican Sen. David Vitter of Louisiana. "This is obviously a very disappointing development in a long line of setbacks, and Louisianians are frankly tired of excuses from the government and BP."
In May, a similar problem with a cap doomed the effort to put a bigger containment device over the blown-out well. BP had to abandon the four-story box after the crystals clogged it, threatening to make it float away.
The smaller cap, which had worked fine until now, had been in place since June 4. To get it there, though, crews had to slice away a section of the leaking pipe, meaning the flow of oil could be stronger now than before.
In Florida, thick pools of oil washed up along miles of national park and Pensacola Beach shoreline as health advisories against swimming and fishing in the once-pristine waters were extended for 33 miles east from the Alabama/Florida border.
"It's pretty ugly, there's no question about it," Gov. Charlie Crist said.
The oil had a chemical stench as it baked in the afternoon heat. The beach looked as if it had been paved with a 6-foot-wide ribbon of asphalt, much different from the tar balls that washed up two weeks earlier.
"This used to be a place where you could come and forget about all your cares in the world," said Nancy Berry, who fought back tears as she watched her two grandsons play in the sand far from the shore.
Park rangers in the Gulf Islands National Seashore helped to rescue an oily young dolphin found beached in the sand.
Ranger Bobbie Visnovske said a family found the dolphin Wednesday, and wildlife officers carried it into shallow water for immediate resuscitation. They later transported it to a rehabilitation center in Panama City, about 100 miles to the east.
Meanwhile, the Obama administration was plotting its next steps after U.S. District Judge Martin Feldman in New Orleans overturned a moratorium on new drilling, saying the government simply assumed that because one rig exploded, the others pose an imminent danger, too.
Feldman, appointed by President Ronald Reagan in 1983, has reported extensive investments in the oil and gas industry, including owning less than $15,000 of Transocean stock, according to financial disclosure reports for 2008, the most recent available. He did not return calls seeking more information about his investments.
The White House promised an immediate appeal of his ruling. The Interior Department imposed the moratorium last month in the wake of the BP disaster, halting approval of any new permits for deepwater projects and suspending drilling on 33 exploratory wells.
Interior Secretary Ken Salazar said in a statement that within the next few days he would issue a new order imposing a moratorium that eliminates any doubt it is needed and appropriate.
"It's important that we don't move forward with new drilling until we know it can be done in a safe way," he told a Senate subcommittee Wednesday.
Several companies, including Shell and Marathon Oil, said they would await the outcome of any appeals before they start drilling again.
Asked about it Wednesday on NBC's "Today" show, BP Managing Director Bob Dudley said his company will "step back" from the issue while it investigates the rig explosion.
BP said Wednesday that Dudley has been appointed to head the new Gulf Coast Restoration Organization, which is in charge of cleaning up the spill. He takes over from BP CEO Tony Hayward, who has been widely criticized for his handling of the crisis.
In Florida, dozens of workers used shovels to scoop up pools of oil that washed up overnight, turning the sand orange.
Tar balls have been reported as far east as Panama City, Fla., and heavier oil is predicted to wash ashore further east along the coast line in the coming days. Oil has also washed up on beaches in Alabama and coated wetlands in Louisiana.
Associated Press writers Lisa Leff in New Orleans, Curt Anderson in Miami, Melissa Nelson in Pensacola, Fla., and Harry R. Weber in Atlanta contributed to this report.