Scientists got an extra day to evaluate whether the giant cork bottling BP's busted well in the Gulf of Mexico will hold, while officials overseeing the disaster pondered their next step.
After days of watching, engineers on Sunday still saw no signs of any leak in the well cap that has shut in the crude for three days. The oil giant and the government were becoming increasingly confident in the temporary stopgap.
"Everybody has been so worried about it blowing," said Willianet Barksdale, a security guard on the public beach at Gulf Shores, Ala. "Maybe this means it's holding and this is almost over."
But the pressure readings were still lower than expected. Scientists were mapping the seafloor and conducting tests to determine if the well simply bled more than initially thought, leaving less oil to put pressure on the cap. Robots patrolled the sea floor in search of any problems.
The trial run — which began Thursday and was extended Saturday — is now set to end Sunday afternoon.
Initially, BP and the government said it was possible the cap could shut in the oil until relief wells were completed and heavy cement and mud is blasted in to plug the bandaged wellbore permanently.
But instead, the cap is to be hooked up through nearly a mile of pipes stretching to ships on the surface that will collect the oil, according to retired Coast Guard Adm. Thad Allen, the government's point man on the crisis.
That decision likely means crude will be released back into the Gulf to temporarily relieve pressure, although it still would not be gushing at the rate it had been before BP's latest fix.
The cap, which on Thursday stopped the crude for the first time since the April 20 explosion unleashed the spill, lets BP shut in the oil, which would be important if a hurricane were to hit the Gulf and force ships to leave the area.
Pressure readings Saturday morning were 6,745 pounds per square inch and rising slowly, Wells said. The figure was below the 7,500 psi that would have reassured scientists the well was not leaking, but still high enough that it could be all right.
A low pressure reading, or a falling one, could mean the oil is escaping. BP LLC vice president Kent Wells said pressure continued to rise very slowly, lessening concern that the cap could cause oil to break out of the well at the sea floor.
It will take months, or possibly years for the Gulf to recover. But there were signs that people were trying to get life — or at least a small part of it — back to normal.
The public beach at Gulf Shores, Ala., had its busiest day in weeks on Saturday despite oil-stained sand and a dark line of tar balls left by high tide.
Darryl Allen of Fairhope, Ala., and Pat Carrasco of Baton Rouge, La., came to the beach to throw a Frisbee just like they've been doing for the past 30 years. With oil on people's minds more than the weather, Allen asked what's become a common question since the well integrity test began: "How's the pressure? I hope it's going up," he said. "You don't want to be too optimistic after all that's happened."
People also were fishing again, off piers and in boats, after most of the recreational waters in Louisiana were reopened late this week. More than a third of federal waters are still closed and off-limits to commercial fishermen.
"I love to fish," said Brittany Lawson, hanging her line off a pier beside the Grand Isle Bridge. "I love to come out here."
And even though it has been only days since the oil was turned off, the naked eye could spot improvements on the water. The crude appeared to be dissipating quickly on the surface of the Gulf around the Deepwater Horizon site.
Members of a Coast Guard crew that flew over the wellhead Saturday said far less oil was visible than a day earlier. Only a colorful sheen and a few long streams of rust-colored, weathered oil were apparent in an area covered weeks earlier by huge patches of black crude. Somewhere between 94 million and 184 million gallons have spilled into the Gulf, according to government estimates.
BP is drilling two relief wells, one of them as a backup. Wells said work on the first one was far enough along that officials expect to reach the broken well's casing, or pipes, deep underground by late this month. Then the job of jamming it with mud and cement could take "a number of days through a few weeks."
Weber reported from Houston. Associated Press writers Allen Breed in Grand Isle, La., Mary Foster in Boothville, La., and Jay Reeves in Gulf Shores, Ala., contributed to this report.
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