Tropical depression halts work on BP's leaky well

ON THE GULF OF MEXICO (AP) - A tropical depression moving
quickly toward the Gulf of Mexico Thursday raised pressure on BP
and the U.S. government to decide whether to evacuate dozens of
ships at the site of the ruptured oil well.
The National Hurricane Center in Miami said a cluster of
thunderstorms in the Bahamas formed into a tropical depression
Thursday morning. Forecast tracks show it moving into the eastern
and central Gulf in the next several days, Hurricane Specialist
Michael Brennan said.
Work on plugging the well is at a standstill just days before
the expected completion of a relief tunnel to permanently throttle
the free-flowing crude.
Worse yet, the government's spill chief said foul weather could
require reopening the cap that has contained the oil for nearly a
week, allowing oil to gush into the sea again for days while
engineers wait out the storm.
"This is necessarily going to be a judgment call," said
retired Coast Guard Adm. Thad Allen, who was waiting to see how the
storm developed before deciding whether to order any of the ships BP spokesman Scott Dean said Thursday morning that no decisions
had been made yet.
Crews had planned to spend Wednesday and Thursday reinforcing
with cement the last few feet of the relief tunnel that will be
used to pump mud into the gusher and kill it once and for all. But
BP put the task on hold and instead placed a temporary plug called
a storm packer deep inside the tunnel, in case it has to be
abandoned until the storm passes.
"What we didn't want to do is be in the middle of an operation
and potentially put the relief well at some risk," BP vice
president Kent Wells said.
If the work crews are evacuated, it could be two weeks before
they can resume the effort to kill the well. That would upset BP's
timetable, which called for finishing the relief tunnel by the end
of July and plugging the blown-out well by early August.
Scientists have been scrutinizing underwater video and pressure
data for days, trying to determine if the capped well is holding
tight or in danger of rupturing and causing an even bigger
disaster. If the storm prevents BP from monitoring the well, the
cap may simply be reopened, allowing oil to spill into the water,
Allen said.
BP and government scientists were meeting to discuss whether the
cap could be monitored from shore.
As the storm drew closer, boat captains hired by BP for skimming
duty were sent home and told they wouldn't be going back out for
five or six days, said Tom Ard, president of the Orange Beach
Fishing Association in Alabama.
In Florida, crews removed booms intended to protect waterways in
the Panhandle from oil. High winds and storm surge could carry the
booms into sensitive wetlands.
Also, Shell Oil began evacuating employees out in the Gulf.
Even if the storm does not hit the area directly, it could
affect the effort to contain the oil and clean it up. Hurricane
Alex stayed 500 miles away last month, yet skimming in Alabama,
Mississippi and Florida was curtailed for nearly a week.
The relief tunnel extends about two miles under the seabed. It's
now about four feet from the side of the well, although BP still
has more than 100 feet to drill diagonally before the tunnel
reaches the well. BP plans to insert a final string of casing, or
drilling pipe, cement it into place, and give it up to a week to
set, before attempting to punch through to the blown-out well and
kill it.
BP's broken well spewed somewhere between 94 million and 184
million gallons into the Gulf before the cap was attached. The
crisis - the biggest offshore oil spill in U.S. history - unfolded
after the BP-leased Deepwater Horizon rig exploded April 20,
killing 11 workers.
The cause of the blast is still under investigation, but there
have been repeated questions raised by rig workers over the
equipment and safety conditions aboard the rig.
The New York Times reported early Thursday that rig workers said
in a confidential survey before the April 20 explosion that they
were concerned about safety and the condition of some equipment on
The Times reported that another report conducted for Transocean
by Lloyd's Register Group found that several pieces of equipment -
including the rams in the failed blowout preventer on the well head
- had not been inspected since 2000, despite guidelines calling for
inspection every three to five years. Transocean said most of the
equipment was minor and the blowout preventer was inspected by
manufacturer guidelines.
A spokesman for Transocean, the owner of the rig leased by BP,
confirmed the existence of the reports to The Associated Press.
"As part of Transocean's unwavering commitment to safety and
rigorous maintenance discipline on all our rigs, we proactively
commissioned the safety survey and the rig assessment review,"
Transocean spokesman Lou Colasuonno said in an e-mail early
Thursday. "A fair reading of those detailed third-party reviews
indicates clearly that while certain areas could be enhanced,
overall rig maintenance met or exceeded regulatory and industry
standards and the Deepwater Horizon's safety management was strong
and a culture of safety was robust on board the rig."

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

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