Reporting from New Orleans and Los Angeles — In an operation that has been plagued with sophisticated technology glitches, the latest delay in BP's effort to control its blown-out well involved a problem that anyone who putters in his garage can understand: a stuck saw.
After the end of a leaking riser pipe resting on the seafloor was shorn off, attempts to make a second, finer cut in the pipe atop the wellhead stalled when a huge, diamond-wire saw became stuck. The tool, which had sliced nearly halfway through the pipe, was dislodged about 12 hours later, at 12:30 p.m. Wednesday, and hauled back to the surface.
"They're preparing to resume," BP spokesman Mark Proegler said Wednesday evening.
But several hours later, the Coast Guard said, BP was giving up on the saw. Lt. Cmdr. Tony Russell, an aide to Adm. Thad Allen, told the Associated Press that BP would try a pair of giant shears instead.
The pipe severing is part of the company's latest attempt to stanch the fountain of oil that is feeding the largest spill in U.S. history. When the cuts are finished, a cap will be attached to the pipe stub to funnel most of the well's flow to a processing ship on the surface.
The second, unfinished cut is crucial, Adm. Allen, the national incident commander, said earlier. "I don't think the issue is whether or not we can make the second cut — it's how fine we can make the second cut and how smooth we can make it," he said. He explained that the cleaner the cut, the tighter the seal around the containment cap.
As BP continued its struggle to capture the leak, the oil slick appeared headed to the shores of western Florida. Oil was also reported in the Mississippi Sound and parts of Alabama, and federal officials once again expanded the portion of federal gulf waters closed to fishing.
The spill, now in its second month, has spread in broken ribbons, much of it kept offshore by the outflow of the Mississippi River. Scientists on several research vessels have said they have detected large subsurface plumes of oil some distance from the slick in various parts of the gulf.
But Wednesday, Jane Lubchenco, head of the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration, said her agency was awaiting the results of carefully conducted lab tests before confirming that the underwater plumes were indeed oil from the BP spill.
"It is quite possible that there is oil beneath the surface," she said. "I think there is reason to believe that might be the case. And we would like to have good confirmation of [what] is there, in what concentrations."
Bob Abbey, acting director of the Minerals Management Service, announced Wednesday that previously approved oil exploration and development plans — including those exempted from review under the National Environmental Policy Act — will need to be resubmitted before any drilling of new wells.
And Sens. Charles E. Schumer (D-N.Y.) and Ron Wyden (D-Ore.) pressed BP Chief Executive Tony Hayward to suspend plans to pay out dividends to shareholders pending a final tally on the cleanup cost for the spill, which already is approaching $1 billion.
"We are concerned that such action to move money off of the company's books and into investors' pockets will make it much more difficult to repay the U.S. government and American communities that are working around the clock to stem the damage caused by this devastating oil spill," the senators said in a letter to Hayward.
In another development, Allen announced that he had directed BP to pay for the construction of five barrier island berms in Louisiana to protect the coast. One had been approved last week. Gov. Bobby Jindal has urged the federal government to green-light the project, despite concern from federal officials who have said the plan could have unintended environmental consequences.
In the Florida Panhandle, where the white beaches have so far remained unblemished, Gov. Charlie Crist said an oil sheen and tar balls could hit as early as Thursday.
South Florida is also preparing for the possible arrival of oil via the Loop Current, which travels from the central gulf around to the state's southeast coast. If it washes ashore there, some of the region's most important habitats could be fouled.
Red mangroves on the coast of Everglades National Park stand on stilt-like roots that nature has engineered to withstand the year-round assault of saltwater. But these sturdy trees, noisy with the squawks of anhingas, roseate spoonbills and other wading birds, make up one of the most vulnerable habitats in the world to oil, ranking second only to Arctic and Antarctic tundra.
Mangroves, both in the Everglades and urban areas of the state such as Hollywood's West Lake Park, would die in large numbers and be virtually impossible to clean out.