Oil spill crews 'playing cat-and-mouse with weather'

Oil spill crews 'playing cat-and-mouse with weather'

Crews hurried to get back to work on plugging BP's leaky oil well after Tropical Storm Bonnie fizzled out and engineers hoped for a window of clear weather long enough to stop the gush for good.

But with peak hurricane season starting in early August, chances are the next big storm is right on Bonnie's heels.

"We're going to be playing a cat-and-mouse game for the remainder of the hurricane season," retired US Coast Guard Admiral Thad Allen said.

Another disturbance was already brewing in the Caribbean, although forecasters said it was not likely to strengthen into a tropical storm.

In the past 10 years, an average of five named storms have hit the Gulf of Mexico each hurricane season.

This year, two have struck already - Bonnie and Hurricane Alex at the end of June, which delayed clean-up of BP's massive Deepwater Horizon oil spill for a week even though it did not get closer than 500 miles from the well.

Bonnie fell apart yesterday before it even reached the Louisiana coast. By then, worries about the storm had pushed back efforts to solidly seal the well by at least a week, said Admiral Allen, the US government's point man on the spill and a veteran of the coastguard's rescue mission after Hurricane Katrina.

Completion now looks possible by mid-August, but Admiral Allen said he would not hesitate to order another evacuation based on forecasts similar to the ones for Bonnie, which halted work on Wednesday.

"We have no choice but to start well ahead of time if we think the storm track is going to bring gale force winds, which are 39mph or above, anywhere close to well site," he said.

The hurricane season ends on November 30.

Even though the evacuation turned out to be short-lived, it revealed one important fact: BP and the US government are increasingly sure that the temporary plug that has mostly contained the oil for eight days will hold.

Ironically, the storm may even have a positive effect. Churning waters could actually help dissipate oil in the water, spreading out the surface slick and breaking up tar balls, said Jane Lubchenco, leader of the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration.

Beaches may look cleaner in some areas as the storm surge pulls oil away, though other areas could see more oil washed ashore.

"I think the bottom line is, it's better than it might have been," Ms Lubchenco said.

Still, the rough weather hurt the operation to kill the well. Work on the relief tunnel stopped on Wednesday and it will take time to restart.

The rig drilling the relief tunnel that will blast mud into the broken well to permanently seal it started steaming back toward the well 40 miles off the Louisiana coast yesterday morning.

Workers who spent Thursday and Friday pulling nearly a mile of segmented steel pipe out of the water and stacking the 40-to-50ft sections on deck will now have to reverse the process. It will probably be tomorrow before BP can resume drilling.

By Wednesday, workers should finish installing steel casing to fortify the relief shaft, Admiral Allen said, and by Friday, crews plan to start blasting in heavy mud and cement through the mechanical cap, the first phase of a two-step process to seal the well for good.

BP will then finish drilling the relief tunnel - which could take up to a week - to pump in more mud and cement from nearly two miles under the sea floor.

But the clear weather may not hold that long, said Joe Bastardi, Accuweather's chief meteorologist of State College, Pennsylvania.

"From what I'm seeing in the tropics, it's like a pot boiling and the lid's going to blow off," Mr Bastardi said.

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