Storm cross­ing Gulf could tem­po­rar­ily blind guardians of oil well’s cap

Austin American-Statesman - - WORLD & NATION - by David Dishneau and Harry R. We­ber

ON THE GULF OF MEX­ICO — Ships re­lay­ing the sights and sounds from BP’s bro­ken oil well stood fast Fri­day as a storm blew straight for the spill site, threat­en­ing to force a full evac­u­a­tion that would leave en­gi­neers clue­less about whether a makeshift cap on the gusher was hold­ing.

Ves­sels con­nected to deep-sea ro­bots equipped with cam­eras and seis­mic de­vices would be among the last to flee and would ride out the rough weather if pos­si­ble, re­tired Coast Guard Adm. Thad Allen said.

“If con­di­tions al­low, they will re­main through the pas­sage of the storm,” Allen said in New Or­leans.

Trop­i­cal Storm Bon­nie made land­fall south of Mi­ami early Fri­day with top sus­tained winds of 40 mph. It broke apart as it crossed Florida and was a trop­i­cal de­pres­sion as it moved into the Gulf of Mex­ico, but fore­cast­ers ex­pected it to strengthen slightly and roll over the spill site about mid­day to­day. Bon­nie was likely to grow back into a trop­i­cal storm again be­fore mak­ing land­fall tonight in east­ern Louisiana or on Mis­sis­sippi’s coast, the Na­tional Hur­ri­cane Cen­ter pre­dicted Fri­day night.

Some of the dozens of ves­sels work­ing at the BP well site were leav­ing Fri­day evening. Allen said in­di­vid­ual cap­tains would de­cide when to leave, based on weather con­di­tions.

The ships hold­ing the mon­i­tor­ing ro­bots would be among the first to re­turn if fore­casts force them to leave, but they could be gone for up to two days, said Allen, the fed­eral govern­ment’s spill chief.

The plug that has mostly con­tained the oil for eight days will be left closed, Allen said. But if the ro­bots are reeled in, the only way of­fi­cials will know if the cap has failed will be if oil pool­ing on the sur­face ap­pears in satel­lite and aerial views — pro­vided the clouds aren’t too thick.

Au­dio sur­veil­lance gear left be­hind could tell BP whether the well is still sta­ble, but sci­en­tists won’t be able to lis­ten to the record­ings un­til the ships re­turn to the area.

Allen expressed in­creas­ing con­fi­dence in the ex­per­i­men­tal cap de­spite a few leaks that ini­tially wor­ried govern­ment ex­perts. Sci­en­tists say even a se­vere storm shouldn’t af­fect the plug, nearly a mile be­neath the ocean sur­face 40 miles from the Louisiana coast.

“There’s al­most no chance it’ll have any im­pact on the well head or the cap be­cause it’s right around 5,000 feet deep and even the largest waves won’t get down that far,” said Don Van Nieuwen­huise, the Uni­ver­sity of Hous­ton’s di­rec­tor of pro­fes­sional geo­science pro­grams.

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