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The Oil Has Stopped For the Moment

5:10 PM, Jul 15, 2010 • By MARY KATHARINE HAM
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The people and wildlife of the Gulf are getting a respite, at least for the moment, from the millions of gallons of oil that have been flowing into the Gulf of Mexico since April 20:

Oil stopped flowing into the Gulf of Mexico for the first time in nearly three months, as BP resumed a critical and repeatedly delayed integrity test Thursday of its well.

BP could not guarantee that no oil would be released throughout the duration of the test, which will continue for at least 6 hours and could last up to 48 hours.

"It felt very good not to see any oil go into the Gulf of Mexico," BP senior vice president Kent Wells told reporters during a Thursday afternoon technical update. "Clearly, I'm trying to maintain a strict focus but we are very encouraged."

Oil stopped gushing at 2:25 p.m., Wells said, when engineers closed the choke line.

It's a bit premature to rejoice too much, but it's nice to hear some good news. It's not too early, howver, to be inspired by the story of how this solution came to be. An anonymous "Mystery Plumber" may have come up with the only idea that's actually succeeded in stopping the oil flow:

Six weeks ago, Robert Bea, an engineering professor at the University of California, Berkeley, received a late-night call from an apologetic "mystery plumber." The caller said he had a sketch for how to solve the problem at the bottom of the Gulf. It was a design for a containment cap that would fit snugly over the top of the failed blowout preventer at the heart of the Gulf oil spill.

Professor Bea, a former Shell executive and well-regarded researcher, thought the idea looked good and sent the sketches directly to the US Coast Guard and to a clearinghouse set up to glean ideas from outside sources for how to cap the stubborn Macondo well.

When Bea saw the design of the containment cap lowered onto the well last week, he marveled at its similarity to the sketches from the late-night caller, whose humble refusal to give his name at the time nearly brought Bea to tears.

"The idea was using the top flange on the blowout preventer as an attachment point and then employing an internal seal against that flange surface," says Bea. "You can kind of see how a plumber thinks this way. That's how they have to plumb homes for sewage."

Could there be a better symbol of individual competence and imagination cutting through the entanglements and incompetence of federal bureaucracy? Three cheers for distributed knowledge and a government that knew well enough to know it didn't know best installing a clearing house for outside ideas to be considered.

Here's hoping this is a solution that works for more than a couple days, and that the clean-up can, at long last, have a chance to catch up with the damage done.

The link to the live feed of the oil leak, which is not leaking, is here.

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