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Waiting out the spill: Anger, frustration and uncertainty

By the CNN Wire Staff
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The next option after 'top kill' failed
STORY HIGHLIGHTS
  • Top kill attempt to stop gusher fails
  • Relief wells still months away
  • Congressman: Anger is building, but uncertainty may be worse
  • Parish president: BP needs to "step up to the plate"
  • Obama: Victims of "manmade disaster" must be made whole

(CNN) -- The parish president said his knees got weak. The congressman said it was like a punch to the stomach, but that his constituents are resilient.

Those in charge of trying to stop the worst oil spill in American history said they were "disappointed."

But on Saturday, engineers and scientists decided the process they thought had the best chance of succeeding never would. They advised BP executives to pull the plug, so to speak, and try something else.

"We have not been able to stop the flow," a somber BP Chief Operating Officer Doug Suttles told reporters. " ... Repeated pumping, we don't believe, will achieve success, so we will move on to the next option."

That next option? A modified version of a procedure that's been tried twice before, a process everyone going in knows can only slow -- but not stop -- the gusher that's pumping up to 19,000 barrels (798,000 gallons) of oil into the Gulf of Mexico every day.

A blowout preventer -- a 48-foot-tall, 450-ton apparatus that sits atop the well 5,000 feet below the surface -- failed to prevent the April 20 accident, and it didn't respond to attempts to shut off the flow.

So BP lowered a four-story containment dome down to the sea floor early this month in an attempt to cover the leak and funnel the oil to the surface, where it could be loaded onto ships. But natural gas crystals collected inside the structure, plugging an outlet at the top.

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Next, the oil giant considered the smaller "Top Hat," a 5-foot-tall, 4-foot-diameter structure that weighed less than two tons. But instead, engineers opted for an insertion tube at mid-month meant to pump oil from the leak to the surface. It did, but only captured about 20 percent of the leaking crude.

And then came the top kill, pumping mud and 16 separate junk shots of solid material into the breach. It failed. Meanwhile, the oil spreads across the Gulf, flows onto beaches and into estuaries and marshes that are much more difficult to clean. And BP says the surefire stopper -- relief wells -- are still months away.

Now BP is preparing to try the lower marine riser package cap -- an even smaller "Top Hat." And if that fails, the plan is to lower a second blowout preventer to the breach.

"We're all frustrated, and we're all angry. These are very resilient people that are tough," said Rep. Charlie Melancon. The Louisiana Democrat teared up during a statement on the House floor Friday, worried about the state's wetlands and the livelihoods of its people.

"What's so upsetting is the inability to know exactly what your future holds," he told CNN. "Where you are, where you come from, where you live, where you've made your living. It's, it's, you know, we can can't -- it's a guess. Will we be another six months? Will we be a year? Will this all cause decimation of the areas we live in? Will there be an oil industry? A fishing industry? Will the marshes survive? There's so many questions in people's minds that are unanswerable at this point in time that the frustrations and, yes, the anger is building."

Melancon pointed out that the region had been hard hit by hurricanes in recent years.

"We're starting to see the light at end of the tunnel, feeling that this was going to be a good year," he said. " ... It's like a belly punch, a stomach punch."

Billy Nungesser, president of Plaquemines Parish, an area with hundreds of miles of coast line and marsh areas, said he was onstage, about to speak at a seafood festival, when he learned the top kill was a failure.

"I was handed a Blackberry by Councilman Chris Roberts from Jefferson Parish, and I saw the message, and my knees got weak," he told CNN. "And I looked out over the crowd and I forgot everything I was going to tell them. And I could not -- didn't have the heart to tell them it didn't work. I told them stay positive, stay encouraged, we're going to do everything we can to save our wildlife and wetlands."

Nungesser seemed deflated Saturday, several steps removed from his passionate calls this week for President Barack Obama's incident commander, Coast Guard Adm. Thad Allen, to resign. But he was clear on what he thought needed to happen next: creation of sand barrier "islands" to capture the oil before it reaches the wetlands.

"We're not counting on anything until this relief well is drilled," he said. "And BP has got to step up to the plate today. And they've got to say, at least to the six areas that the corps of engineers gave us permits, they need to be on the phone with the governor of Louisiana tonight saying that they will approve and pay to move those dredges and pump that sand to stop that oil from coming in."

"We are going to die a slow death here in Louisiana if we don't get that out there," he said.

"You see what it's done in those marshes," he said. "You can't clean it up. It is destroying our way of life. And unless BP steps up the plate -- not next week -- tonight, tonight, Mr. president of BP, you can move those dredges tonight, and we can start saving coastal Louisiana."

Obama, spending the Memorial Day holiday at his Chicago home, sounded none-too-pleased himself with the progress in the Gulf.

"Every day that this leak continues is an assault on the people of the Gulf Coast region, their livelihoods, and the natural bounty that belongs to all of us," he said. "It is as enraging as it is heartbreaking, and we will not relent until this leak is contained, until the waters and shores are cleaned up, and until the people unjustly victimized by this manmade disaster are made whole."

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