The federal government's oil spill chief said Tuesday that seepage two miles from BP's oil cap is coming from another well, tamping down fears that leaks mean the ruptured well is unstable.
Retired Coast Guard Adm. Thad Allen also said five leaks in and around BP's well are more like "drips," and aren't yet reason to worry.
The leaks and seepage had raised concerns that the mechanical cap choking off the flow of oil was displacing pressure and forcing oil out deep underground. That could make the sea floor unstable and make the 3-month-old environmental disaster even worse and harder to fix.
Allen said the well appears stable, and he extended testing of the experimental cap by another day, which means the oil will remain shut in.
The cap is buying time until a permanent plug is in place. Crews are drilling into the side of the ruptured well from deep underground, and by next week, they could start blasting in mud and cement to block off the well for good. Killing the well deep underground works more reliably than bottling it up with a cap.
Allen also said he's considering whether to pump mud and cement through the well cap, smashing the oil in from two directions. The idea is similar to the failed top kill plan that couldn't overcome the pressure of the geyser pushing up.
BP and Allen said it could work now because there's less oil to fight against, and oil will also be coming in from the side
The seepage was detected over the weekend, and was the first sign of trouble after the cap was closed Thursday.
But Allen said Tuesday another well is to blame.
"In fact, it's closer to that facility than" the one that blew out, Allen said. "The combination of those factors and the fact that it's not unusual to have seepage around the old wells led us to believe that we could exclude that as a potential source of leakage from the particular wellbore."
There are two wells within two miles of BP's blowout, one that has been abandoned and another that is not in production. Around 27,000 abandoned wells in the Gulf aren't checked for leaks, an Associated Press investigation showed this month.
Allen said he'd accompany Vice President Joe Biden on a trip to the Gulf on Thursday. The White House says Biden will visit Theodore, Ala., to assess the government's and BP's efforts to respond to the disaster and to meet with affected residents.
Biden made his first trip to the region in late June.
Between 94 million and 184 million gallons have gushed into the Gulf since the Deepwater Horizon rig exploded April 20, killing 11 workers.
A BP employee told government investigators Tuesday that weeks before the explosion, he reported a leak of hydraulic fluid in a critical safety device that could have prevented the disaster.
Ronald Sepulvado, a BP well site leader, told a panel of government investigators in suburban New Orleans that he didn't know if federal regulators were notified of the leak, as required.
A federal regulation requires drilling operations to be suspended if a blowout preventer pod isn't fully functional, but BP didn't stop drilling. Sepulvado said the safety device passed the last pressure test performed 11 days before the explosion.
Long reported from New Orleans. Associated Press writers David Dishneau in New Orleans, Michael Kunzelman in Kenner and Phuong Le in Orange Beach, Ala., contributed to this report.
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