Storm holds up work at BP spill site

WORK to permanently choke off BP’s broken oil well stalled yesterday as Tropical Storm Bonnie raced toward the Gulf of Mexico and dozens of ships evacuated the area.

Engineers are so confident in the stability of an experimental plug – which has mostly throttled the oil for more than a week – that they won’t open it even if the storm hits directly. They’ll likely lose sight of the temporary cap for at least a few days.

The storm blossomed over the Bahamas and was to enter the Gulf of Mexico this weekend, and a tropical storm watch was issued early yesterday for the northern Gulf coast from Destin, Florida, to Morgan City, Louisiana.

The rough weather could delay by another 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 it’s not 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 appropriate cautions,” Allen said.

Bonnie had maximum sustained winds near 60km/h yesterday as it swirled about 130km south-southeast of Miami.

The delay in work would be worse if BP had to fully open the cap while the ships closely monitoring the well head left. More oil would have been allowed to spew into the Gulf until they returned.

A week of steady measurements through cameras and other devices convinced Allen they don’t need to open vents to relieve pressure on the cap, which 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 ships carrying the robotic submarines watching the well will be the last to leave and the first to return.

Orders have been given to begin moving dozens of vessels from the spill site, including the rig that’s drilling the relief tunnel engineers will use to permanently throttle the free-flowing crude near the bottom of the well. Some vessels could stay on site, Allen said.

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.

Bonnie reached tropical storm strength late on Thursday, and Allen said yesterday crews expected sustained wind above 60km/h at the spill site.


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