PENSACOLA — Will a more snugly attached cap finally staunch the oil spewing into the Gulf of Mexico? BP planned to begin testing that question late Tuesday, leaving Gulf Coast residents and government officials anxious for the answer.
The latest attempt to temporarily cover the well comes three months after the Deepwater Horizon rig exploded on April 20 and killed 11 workers.
"Even when it's finally capped, this will be a long-term cleanup effort, but it sounds promising that this plan might be the one to work," said Gordon Goodin, chairman of the Santa Rosa County commission in the Florida Panhandle.
BP had hoped to get the tests started Tuesday morning to see if the latest, 150,000-pound metal cap could withstand pressure from the escaping oil and seal off the well while the company drills relief wells that would permanently plug the oil site.
But that estimate was too optimistic, Kent Wells, a BP senior vice president, told reporters in a conference call from Houston Tuesday afternoon. Communication and contingency checks took longer than the company expected.
"It's not a simple test," he said.
BP officials had sounded more enthused earlier in the day, when they praised technicians for using undersea robots to latch the 18-foot-high cap by 7 p.m. Monday, without any major setbacks.
"Things went extremely well," Wells said while warning that the possible fix might not work. "But we know the job isn't over yet."
But placing the cap was only the beginning of the effort, designed to help stop the flow of oil and determine if the broken well is leaking in more than one place.
BP will test the cap by closing three separate valves to pipes that funnel oil to surface ships and seeing if the cap chokes off the sludge and blocks it from entering the Gulf.
That would build up pressure inside the cap and broken well head. Lower pressures would indicate there is a leak elsewhere in the well.
"Everybody hope and pray that we see high pressures here," Wells said.
The best indication that the cap is working would come if between 8,000 and 9,000 pounds per square inch of pressure build up quickly inside the cap, Wells said. If the pressure fails to climb above 6,000 pounds per square inch, that would lead officials to believe oil was leaking elsewhere.
Altogether, the tests could take up to 48 hours, and the company could take longer to decide what to do with the cap. Or BP could abort the test in the middle of the procedure, if scientists think there's a risk that oil leaking from somewhere else could cause another breach on the ocean floor.
Were the cap to fail, the company would have to reopen the valves and funnel as much oil as possible from the well head to ships on the surface.
Earlier Tuesday, BP ran a seismic survey on the sea floor around the well site to help technicians determine if oil leaks out of the well during the valve test.
Also Tuesday, U.S. Coast Guard officials said test results confirmed that tar balls found on a Galveston, Texas, beach last week were from the oil spill, the Associated Press reported.
Tar ball sightings have been few and far between over the past week in the Florida Panhandle, but local leaders remain frustrated by what they consider sluggish cleanup.
"They need to find ways to be more efficient," said Goodin, the Santa Rosa County commissioner, recounting a recent trip to a cleanup sight.
"It was 9:15 in the morning and they were still setting up tents," he said. Everyone else in the world has been up and working for the past two hours at that point."
In hard-hit Pensacola Beach, tar balls remain lodged below the sand, despite day and nighttime cleanup efforts.
BP has employed 1,558 cleanup workers to comb Panhandle beaches picking up ooze from the oil spill, according to the Florida Department of Environmental Protection.
( Miami Herald staff writer Figueroa reported from Pensacola. Staff writer Mazzei reported from Miami.)