Approaching storm threatens to halt BP leak operation

Dozens of ships were preparing to pull out of the Gulf of Mexico today halting efforts to plug BP’s oil well, as a tropical storm brewed in the Caribbean.

Although the bad weather was hundreds of miles from the site, officials ordered engineers to suspend work because they need several days to clear the area.

The government’s oil spill chief was waiting to see how the storm developed before deciding whether to order the ships to evacuate.

Anxiety was building among the 75 crew aboard the cutter Decisive, the Coast Guard’s primary search and rescue vessel, which would be the last of about 65 ships to leave in the event of an evacuation.

The work was halted just days from completing a relief well to permanently close the leak.

Worse yet, bad weather could require reopening the cap that has contained the oil for nearly a week, allowing it to gush into the sea again while engineers wait out the storm.

The cluster of thunderstorms passed over Haiti and the Dominican Republic yesterday, and was forecast to move into the Gulf over the weekend with a 40% chance it would becoming a tropical depression or tropical storm by tomorrow.

Workers stationed 50 miles out in the Gulf had planned to spend yesterday and today reinforcing with cement the last few feet of the relief tunnel that will be used to pump mud into the leak and block it permanently. But BP instead placed a temporary plug called a storm packer inside the tunnel in case it has to be abandoned while 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,” a spokesman said.

If the workers are evacuated, it could be two weeks before they can resume the effort to plug the well. That would upset BP’s timetable for finishing the relief tunnel this month and plugging the blown-out well by early August.

The storm could affect oil containment and cleanup efforts even if it does not hit the area directly. Last month, Hurricane Alex stayed 500 miles away but skimming in Alabama, Mississippi and Florida was curtailed for nearly a week.

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