Storms threaten to shut down BP's work at Gulf oil leak site

NEW ORLEANS (AP) - Tropical rainstorms moving toward the Gulf of
Mexico Wednesday threatened to shut down undersea efforts to seal
BP's ruptured well, interrupting work just as engineers get close
to plugging the leak with mud and cement.
Retired U.S. Coast Guard Adm. Thad Allen said a weather system
brewing in the Caribbean could force crews to abandon their watch
over the experimental cap that's been bottling oil a mile below the
surface of the water for nearly a week.
Scientists have been scrutinizing underwater cameras and data
for days, trying to determine if the cap is displacing pressure and
causing leaks underground. If storms keep them from seeing the cap
and getting those readings - for up to four days, Allen said - BP
could reopen the well to avoid missing signs it is buckling.
"This is necessarily going to be a judgment call," said Allen,
the federal government's point man on the spill who will make the
ultimate decision.
Forecasters say the storm system likely will move into the Gulf
of Mexico over the weekend, although it appears to be weakening.
Right now, it has a 60 percent chance of becoming a tropical
depression or storm within the next 48 hours.
Even if the storm doesn't hit the area directly, it could affect
containment and cleanup. Hurricane Alex didn't get closer than 500
miles from the spill in late June, yet offshore skimming in
Alabama, Mississippi and Florida was essentially curtailed for
nearly a week.
In Florida, crews were removing protective boom intended to
buffer the state's inland waterways in the Panhandle from oil. High
winds and storm surge could carry the boom into sensitive wetlands,
damaging those areas.
Allen said BP and government scientists were meeting to discuss
whether the cap could be monitored from the shore.
It could take several days to evacuate ships from the well site
50 miles off the Louisiana coast, where the BP-leased Deepwater
Horizon rig exploded April 20, killing 11 and touching off one of
America's worst environmental crises.
Allen said an evacuation could delay operations as much as two
weeks before work would resume to kill the well at the bottom.
Shell Oil, the U.S. arm of Royal Dutch Shell PLC, already has
begun evacuating personnel not essential to producing and drilling
on their operations in the Gulf.
BP crews are in the final stages of readying a relief tunnel
before boring into the side of the ruptured well to dump heavy mud
and cement, sealing it for good. BP also may pump mud and cement
from the top, to make efforts at the bottom easier. That procedure,
called a surface kill, would occur before the well is ultimately
plugged from below.
Before talk of nasty weather, BP was inching closer to
completion and had hoped for a permanent plug by early August.
The well has spewed somewhere between 94 million and 184 million
gallons into the Gulf. BP said the cost of dealing with the spill
has reached nearly $4 billion.
The temporary cork in the well has helped cleanup efforts, and
Allen said skimming vessels are starting to have trouble finding
oil to collect. BP has about 1,600 boats operating daily in waters
off Alabama, Florida and Mississippi, 600 fewer than last week,
said Matt Kissinger, director of BP's "vessels of opportunity"
program in the region.
Some boat captains, many earning more through the cleanup than
they typically do from fishing, are worried it's a sign BP is
leaving the Gulf too early.
Shrimper Minh V. Le of Bayou La Batre had both of his boats out
skimming for oil initially, but one has been deactivated.
"A lot of us have put a lot of sweat into the program," he
said. "You've got a 100-degree heat index, and there's a lot of
wear and tear on our boats. If something breaks down it can cost
$30,000. What they're paying isn't a drop in the bucket."

(Copyright 2010 by The Associated Press. All Rights Reserved.)

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