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BP tests begin amid hope that Gulf oil spill is ending

Tests beginning Wednesday night will determine whether BP can shut the well entirely. The watchword of the latest effort to stem the Gulf oil spill gusher is patience.

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The deck of the Pacific Responder oil skimming vessel is reflected in the safety glasses of Marine Spill Response Corporation employee Robert Strong Wednesday. BP has moved more skimmers to the Deepwater Horizon accident site as it has worked to fit a new cap on the well in the Gulf oil spill.

Patrick Semansky/AP

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Perhaps for the first time since the Deepwater Horizon exploded on April 20, BP is on the verge of shutting off the source of the Gulf oil spill.

As of Wednesday afternoon, BP got the go-ahead for its integrity tests on the leaking well. If the tests are successful, BP will at last have turned off the spigot to a geyser that has gushed tens of thousands of barrels of oil a day into the Gulf for nearly three months.

The tests could fail and be abandoned at any time during the two-day process. But success, if it comes, will require patience.

Already, the federal government made BP wait a day before starting the integrity test – wanting to make sure that engineers had taken every possible precaution to avoid making things worse. And on Wednesday, the man in charge of relief efforts, retired Coast Guard Adm. Thad Allen, laid out how the same caution that delayed the tests will now animate every step of the tests themselves.

If they can, BP and the federal government want to avoid reverting to the backup plan – collecting all the oil leaking from the well with ships on the surface. For one, BP won’t be ready to collect all the oil for two weeks – not all the ships needed are on site. Moreover, hurricanes would disrupt any oil collection effort.

So engineers will go slow in hopes of getting it right.

In a series of six-hour intervals, engineers will shut down the five open valves through which oil is flowing. Every step of the way, they will monitor pressure readings that could indicate whether they could be creating new problems.

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