NEW ORLEANS -- BP's broken oil well is not dead yet.
The government's point man on the crisis said Friday that the blown-out well is not securely plugged to his satisfaction and that the drilling of the relief well -- long regarded as the only way to ensure that the hole at the bottom of the Gulf of Mexico never leaks oil again -- must go forward.
"The relief well will be finished," said retired Coast Guard Adm. Thad Allen, the government's point man for the spill. "We will kill the well."
Work on the relief well was suspended earlier this week because of bad weather. Allen did not say when it would resume, but when the order comes, it could take four days to get the operation up and running again.
From there, it could be only a matter of days before the "bottom kill" is done and the blown-out well that wreaked havoc on the Gulf Coast economy and environment is no longer a threat.
Last week, BP plugged up the ruptured oil well from the top with mud and cement, and for a while, it appeared that the relief well that BP has been drilling 2 1/2 miles under the sea all summer long in an effort to seal up the leak from the bottom might not be necessary after all. But Allen dashed those hopes after scientists conducted pressure tests Thursday.
Scientists had hoped that the cement pumped in from the top had plugged the gap between the well's inner pipe and its outer casing. The pressure tests showed some cement was in that gap, but officials don't know enough about what's there -- or how much of it -- to trust that there is a permanent seal, said Allen.
The well spilled an estimated 206 million gallons of crude into the sea before BP finally put a cap on it July 15.
Drilling of the relief well began in early May, and the tunnel is now just 30 to 50 feet from the blown-out well. To intercept the well, the drillers must hit a target about the size of a dinner plate. Once they punch through, heavy drilling mud and cement will be injected into the bedrock.