Oil spill ships or­dered to leave as trop­i­cal storm ap­proaches

Austin American-Statesman - - FRONT PAGE - By Harry R. We­ber and David Dishneau

ON THE GULF OF MEX­ICO — Dozens of key ships sta­tioned around BP’s crip­pled well in the Gulf of Mex­ico were or­dered to evac­u­ate Thurs­day ahead of Trop­i­cal Storm Bon­nie, but en­gi­neers have de­cided to keep in­tact the cap that plugged the well last week, leav­ing it un­watched for at least a few days.

Trop­i­cal Storm Bon­nie, which blos­somed over the Ba­hamas and is ex­pected to en­ter the Gulf of Mex­ico this week­end, could de­lay by 12 days the push to plug the bro­ken well for good us­ing mud and ce­ment, re­tired Coast Guard Adm. Thad Allen and BP of­fi­cials con­ceded.

Even if the storm doesn’t make a di­rect hit, the rough weather will push back ef­forts to kill the well by at least a week.

“While this is not a hur­ri­cane, it’s a storm that will have prob­a­bly some sig­nif­i­cant im­pacts. We’re tak­ing ap-

pro­pri­ate cau­tions,” Allen said in Mo­bile, Ala.

Allen is­sued the or­der Thurs­day night to be­gin mov­ing dozens of ves­sels from the spill site, in­clud­ing the rig that’s drilling the re­lief well that is to per­ma­nently stop the dam­aged well.

“While these ac­tions may de­lay the ef­fort to kill the well for sev­eral days, the safety of the in­di­vid­u­als at the well site is our high­est con­cern,” he said.

A week of steady mea­sure­ments through cam­eras and other de­vices con­vinced Allen that work­ers don’t need to open vents to re­lieve pres­sure on the cap, pres­sure that en­gi­neers had wor­ried might con­trib­ute to leaks un­der­ground and an even big­ger blowout. The cap was at­tached a week ago, and only mi­nor leaks have been de­tected.

The storm sys­tem had al­ready caused flood­ing in Puerto Rico, the Dominican Re­pub­lic and Haiti be­fore reach­ing trop­i­cal storm strength Thurs­day. Allen said crews ex­pected sus­tained winds above 39 mph at the spill site by early Satur­day.

Seas al­ready were choppy in the Gulf, with waves up to 5 feet rock­ing boats as crews pre­pared to leave, and many of the smaller boats in­volved in the coastal cleanup were called into port, Coast Guard Rear Adm. Paul Zukunft said.

Louisiana Gov. Bobby Jin­dal said he ex­pects lo­cal lead­ers in coastal parishes to call for evac­u­a­tion of low-ly­ing ar­eas as early as this morn­ing.

Keep­ing ahead of Bon­nie, fed­eral au­thor­i­ties or­dered work­ers to start mov­ing sur­plus re­sponse equip­ment and ves­sels to in­land stag­ing ar­eas, ac­cord­ing to a govern­ment state­ment.

The loom­ing storm put a tem­po­rary halt to most coastal cleanup ef­forts. Zukunft or­dered crews to re­move heavy oil-block­ing booms from low­ly­ing ar­eas and to stock­pile them on high ground so they would not be washed away.

Booms do lit­tle to stop oil in rough wa­ter, Zukunft said, and they could do more harm than good if they get driven into frag­ile wet­lands.

“We have less oil in the Gulf of Mex­ico, but I still have 3.5 mil­lion feet of boom out there,” he said. “Rather than let­ting Mother Na­ture drive me into a corner, I’m get­ting ahead of it.”

Thurs­day night the Na­tional Hur­ri­cane Cen­ter fore­cast that Bon­nie will go ashore Sun­day af­ter­noon south­east of Lafayette, La.

Jim Rouiller, a se­nior en­ergy meteorologist at Pl­an­a­lyt­ics Inc. in Penn­syl­va­nia, said he doubts the storm will be able to achieve hur­ri­cane strength as it moves across the Gulf be­cause of a high-pres­sure sys­tem over the south­ern U.S. As the storm moves along the edge of that sys­tem, up­per-level winds will pre­vent the storm from gain­ing strength.

“I re­main quite concerned of how this trop­i­cal storm will im­pact and move this oil slick to­ward the up­per Gulf Coast line, even to in­clude a west­ward shift to­ward the up­per coast of Texas,” Rouiller said.

Sci­en­tists say even a se­vere storm shouldn’t af­fect the well cap, nearly a mile be­neath the ocean sur­face 40 miles from the Louisiana coast.

Jerry Galt, a phys­i­cal oceanog­ra­pher with the Na­tional Oceanic and At­mo­spheric Ad­min­is­tra­tion’s spill re­sponse group in Seat­tle, said a trop­i­cal storm, or even a hur­ri­cane, would have lit­tle ef­fect on the seafloor.

“You’d hardly no­tice it,” he said. “You might get a slight vari­a­tion in the cur­rents, but that would be very tran­si­tory.”

“As­sum­ing all lines are dis­con­nected from the sur­face, there should be no ef­fect on the well­head by a pass­ing sur­face storm,” said Paul Bom­mer, a petroleum en­gi­neer­ing pro­fes­sor at the Uni­ver­sity of Texas.

Charles Har­well, a BP con­trac­tor mon­i­tor­ing the cap, was also con­fi­dent.

“That cap was spe­cially made, it’s on tight, we’ve been look­ing at the progress, and it’s all good,” he said af­ter his ship re­turned to Port Four­chon, La.

Be­fore the cap was at­tached and closed a week ago, the bro­ken well spewed 92 mil­lion to 184 mil­lion gal­lons into the Gulf af­ter the BP-leased Deep­wa­ter Hori­zon rig ex­ploded April 20, killing 11 work­ers.

Work on plug­ging the well came to a stand­still Wed­nes­day, just days be­fore au­thor­i­ties had hoped to com­plete the re­lief shaft. Allen said Thurs­day he has told BP to go ahead and pre­pare for a sec­ond mea­sure called a static kill that would pump mud and ce­ment into the well from the top, a move he said would in­crease the re­lief well’s chances for suc­cess. BP will have to get fi­nal ap­proval from Allen be­fore start­ing the pro­ce­dure.

Vice Pres­i­dent Joe Bi­den vis­ited cleanup work­ers in south­ern Alabama and said he was glad the cap could re­main on.

Ger­ald Her­bert

About 4,000 birds have been found dead or alive but oiled in the Gulf dis­as­ter.

Pa­trick se­manksy

Ocea­neer­ing su­per­vi­sor Tim Weiss demon­strates the con­trols for an un­der­wa­ter ve­hi­cle aboard a ship that is al­ready in port.

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