WASHINGTON — BP has abandoned its most recent "top kill" effort to contain its runaway oil well in the Gulf of Mexico, a company official announced Saturday evening.
"After three full days, we have been unable to overcome the flow," said the company's chief operating officer, Doug Suttles, at a news conference in Robert, La. "This scares everybody, the fact that we can't make this well stop flowing, or the fact that we haven't succeeded so far."
In its next effort to halt what its officials have called an "environmental catastrophe," BP will cut off the leaking riser at the top of the five-story blowout preventer atop the wellhead to get an even surface on the broken pipe.
Then the company will install what's called a lower marine riser package, a cap containment system that would be connected to a new riser from the drillship Discoverer Enterprise 5,000 feet above on the surface. The aim is to minimize the amount of oil reaching the shore until BP can drill relief wells, Suttles said.
He estimated that the procedure would take about four days to complete, but if it also fails, it could be several months before BP can finish drilling two relief wells to intersect the blown out well so concrete can be poured into it.
President Barack Obama, who interrupted a long holiday weekend at his home in Chicago to visit the Louisiana coast on Friday, voiced anger over news that BP's "top kill" strategy had failed.
"As I said yesterday, 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," Obama 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."
Obama said he discussed the situation Saturday with Coast Guard Adm. Thad Allen, who is overseeing the response to the spill, and Energy Secretary Steven Chu, Interior Secretary Ken Salazar, Environmental Protection Agency Administrator Lisa Jackson and senior White House advisers John Brennan and Carol Browner.
In a statement released by the White House, Obama warned that the new approach to trying to stop the leak "is not without risk and has never been attempted before at this depth. That is why it was not activated until other methods had been exhausted."
The president added that "it is also important to note that while we were hopeful that the top kill would succeed, we were also mindful that there was a significant chance it would not. And we will continue to pursue any and all responsible means of stopping this leak until the completion of the two relief wells currently being drilled."
As much as 73 million more gallons of oil could contaminate the Gulf of Mexico if the flow continues unabated until August — the soonest that officials estimate the relief wells can be drilled — poisoning wildlife, destroying fragile marshlands, closing more fishing grounds and depriving fishermen, resort workers and many others of their livelihoods.
Scientists fear that the volume of oil, the depth of the leak and the chemical dispersants the company is using will combine to threaten a vast array of undersea life for years.
At risk are such endangered species as Kemp's ridley sea turtles and the Atlantic bluefin tuna, as well as the gulf's 8,300 other creatures ranging from plankton to birds. The contamination, some say, is likely to undo years of work that brought some wildlife, such as the brown pelican, back from the brink of extinction.
The economic impact on fisheries could be dire. On Friday, the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration closed additional areas of the gulf to fishing, shutting off about 25 percent of federal waters to ensure that seafood from the gulf remains safe for consumers.
Information from the Associated Press and McClatchy Newspapers was used in this report.