Washington: A crane hoisted a key piece of oil spill evidence to the surface of the Gulf of Mexico on Saturday, giving investigators their first chance to personally scrutinise the blowout preventer, the massive piece of equipment that failed to stop the gusher four months ago.
It took 29 1/2 hours to lift the 50-foot, 300-ton blowout preventer from a mile beneath the sea to the surface. The five-storey high device breached the water's surface at 6:54 pm CDT, and looked largely intact with black stains on the yellow metal.
FBI agents were among the 137 people aboard the Helix Q4000 vessel, taking photos and video of the device. They will escort it back to a NASA facility in Louisiana for analysis.
The blowout preventer was placed into a metal contraption specifically designed to hold the massive device at 9:16 pm CDT Saturday. As it was manoeuvred into place, crew members were silent and water dripped off the device.
Crews had been delayed raising the device after icelike crystals — called hydrates — formed on it. The device couldn't be safely lifted from the water until the hydrates melted because the hydrates are combustible, said Darin Hilton, the captain of the Helix Q4000.
Hydrates form when gases such as methane mix with water under high pressure and cold temperatures. The crystals caused BP PLC problems in May, when hydrates formed on a 100-ton, four-storey dome the company tried to place over the leak to contain it.
As a large hatch opened up on the Helix to allow the blowout preventer to pass through, several hundred feet of light sheen could be seen near the boat, though crews weren't exactly sure what it was.
The April 20 explosion aboard the Deepwater Horizon killed 11 workers and led to 206 million gallons of oil spewing from BP PLC's undersea well.
Investigators know the explosion was triggered by a bubble of methane gas that escaped from the well and shot up the drill column, expanding quickly as it burst through several seals and barriers before igniting.
But they don't know exactly how or why the gas escaped. And they don't know why the blowout preventer didn't seal the well pipe at the sea bottom after the eruption, as it was supposed to. While the device didn't close — or may have closed partially — investigative hearings have produced no clear picture of why it didn't plug the well.
Documents emerged showing that a part of the device had a hydraulic leak, which would have reduced its effectiveness, and that a passive "deadman" trigger had a low, perhaps even dead, battery.
Steve Newman, president of rig owner Transocean, told lawmakers following the disaster that there was no evidence the device itself failed and suggested debris might have been forced into it by the surging gas.
There has also been testimony that the blowout preventer didn't undergo a rigorous recertification process in 2005 as required by federal regulators.
Recertifying the five-storey device requires completely disassembling it out of the water and can take as long as three months to complete.
Testimony from BP and Transocean officials also showed that repairs were not always authorised by the manufacturer, Cameron International, and that confusion about the equipment delayed attempts to close the well in the days after the explosion.
First Published: Sunday, September 05, 2010, 09:23