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