Oil spill ships ordered to leave as tropical storm approaches
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.
About 4,000 birds have been found dead or alive but oiled in the Gulf disaster.
Oceaneering supervisor Tim Weiss demonstrates the controls for an underwater vehicle aboard a ship that is already in port.