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BP warns of safety risks in more aggressive oil leak plan

WASHINGTON — BP's newest plan to capture oil gushing from the runaway Deepwater Horizon oil well poses significant safety risks for "several hundred people" working aboard the ships that will be assigned to 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 that would have three ships in place by the end of June capable of processing as much as 53,000 barrels a day of crude from the well and would have four ships in place by mid July collecting between 60,000 and 80,000 barrels a day.

Suttles cautioned, however, that the "multi-vessel containment plan" that would be in place in July 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."

Suttles wrote that BP would "continue to aggressively drive schedule to minimize" the amount of oil escaping into the Gulf of Mexico. He cautioned, however, that that effort "must not allow this drive to compromise our number one priority, that being the health and saftey of our people."

Suttles noted that with so many vessels working in a relatively small areas there was a risk of a major surface accident. Video shot over the site Sunday showed more than a dozen vessels on the scene. A jet of burning natural gas nearly 200 feet long shot from the side of one.

The Coast Guard released Suttles' letter Monday, the same day the House Subcommittee on Oversight and Investigations accused BP of cutting corners on the Deepwater Horizon well to save money, singling out five money-saving decisions that 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 has so far defied solution.

Rear Adm. James Watson, the Coast Guard officer who is 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. "They have now outlined a path to contain more than 50,000 barrels of oil per day by the end of June, two weeks earlier than they originally suggested. Their revised plan also includes methods to achieve even greater redundancy beyond the month of June, to better allow for bad weather or unforeseen circumstances. 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 did not comment on Suttles' worries about safety issues, which have been a growing concern not just for workers on he 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 generated by the unprecedented flaring of so much crude. Suttles acknowledged in his letter that the Q4000 plan would be discontinued "for safety reasons" once the four primary ships are in place in mid July.

Suttles' letter was in response to one Watson wrote last Friday calling for BP to come up with a more agressive plan. Watson said 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 is now directing about 15,000 barrels of crude a day to the Discoverer Enterpriser drilling ship.

Watson also said the BP plan took toolong, with much 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 capacity to 40,000 to 53,000 barrels a day, with the Discoverer Enterprise colelcting between 15,000 to 18,000 barrel per day and the Q4000 burning 5,000 to 10,000 barrels a day.

A more permanent reponse would be in place in mid July when the second floating riser would be completed, feeding another 20,000 to 25,000 barrels a day to either the Toisa Pisces or Helix Producer. A fourth ship, the Discoverer Clear Leader, would also be added, with a 10,000 to 15,000 barrel a day capacity.

That would leave the four ships — the Toisa Pisces, the Helix Producer, the Discoverer Enterprise and the Discoverer Clear Leader — in place with a total capacity of between 60,000 and 80,000 barrels per day until a relief well can be completed that would dump cement into the out-of-control well and close it off permanently. That is not expected to happen until August at the earliest, and perhaps later.

In outlining the plan, however, Suttles said there were several obstacles that could limit its success. In addition to san 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.

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