WASHINGTON — Workers removed the "top hat" device collecting crude oil from BP's gushing Deepwater Horizon well Wednesday morning in a major setback to efforts to contain the leak.
Coast Guard Adm. Thad Allen, the Obama administration's point man on the BP oil leak, told reporters in his daily briefing that the long term impact of the decision was uncertain, but video from the leak showed crude gushing unhindered into the water for the first time since the "top hat" device, also referred to as the Lower Marine Riser Package, was set in place June 3.
It was unclear how soon the top hat might be put back in place, Allen said. He said he had only learned of the problem as he was headed to the Coast Guard headquarters briefing room in Washington. A BP press statement later said the incident had occured at 8:45 a.m. Central time.
BP called the measure temporary, but provided no information on when the device might be reinstalled.
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The incident came a day after BP collected the most crude oil captured at the site -- more than 27,000 barrels, including 10,429 that were burned by the Q4000 drilling rig.
Allen said the Discoverer Enterprise drilling ship, which has been collecting oil through the "top hat," removed the device from the bleeding well after workers detected what appeared to be gas coming directly into the ship through a line that was being used to run warm water into the top hat to prevent a buildup of ice-like hydrate crystals. With the ship burning off thousands of cubic feet of natural gas each day, workers were concerned the gas might ignite, creating an explosive situation aboard the ship.
Allen said it was unclear how the gas came to be in the warm water line, but that initial suspicions centered on the possibility that a robot vehicle working neaer the top hat had accidentally bumped it and closed one of the vents through which the crude continues to escape. That may have increased pressure within the top hat, forcing gas into the warm water line.
Allen said workers would have to determine if hydrates had formed in the top hat and pipeline leading to the Discoverer Enterprise. If so, new pipe will have to be run to the top hat before collection can begin again.
Collection of oil through the Q4000, which draws crude directly from the well's blowout preventer and doesn't depend on the top hat, was unaffected by the incident, BP said.