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Tropical depression halts work on oil well

July 22, 2010 12:00:00 AM PDT
A tropical depression racing toward the Gulf of Mexico Thursday increased pressure on BP and the U.S. government to decide whether to evacuate dozens of ships at the site of the ruptured oil well.A cluster of thunderstorms passed over Haiti and the Dominican Republic on Wednesday, and forecasters said the system would probably move into the Gulf over the weekend. They gave it a 40 percent chance of becoming a tropical depression or a tropical storm by Friday.

Even though the rough weather is hundreds of miles from the spill site and wouldn't enter the Gulf for at least a few more days, officials ordered technicians trying to plug the ruptured well to stand down because they needed several days to clear the area.

There are approximately 65 ships that are tending to the spill.

The cutter, with a 75-member crew, is the Coast Guard's primary search and rescue vessel and would be the last ship to leave in the event of an evacuation. It was within a few miles of the well site Thursday morning.

According to retired Coast Guard Adm. Thad Allen, the foul weather could require reopening the cap that has contained the oil for nearly a week, allowing oil to gush into the sea again for days while engineers wait out the storm.

"This is necessarily going to be a judgment call," said Allen, who was waiting to see how the storm developed before deciding whether to order any of the ships and crews stationed some 50 miles out in the Gulf to head for safety.

Crews had planned to spend Wednesday and Thursday reinforcing with cement the last few feet of the relief tunnel that will be used to pump mud into the gusher and kill it once and for all. But BP put the task on hold and instead placed a temporary plug called a storm packer deep inside the tunnel, in case it has to be abandoned until the storm passes.

If the work crews are evacuated, it could be two weeks before they can resume the effort to kill the well.

Latest Developments:

  • Scientists have been scrutinizing underwater video and pressure data for days, trying to determine if the capped well is holding tight or in danger of rupturing and causing an even bigger disaster. If the storm prevents BP from monitoring the well, the cap may simply be reopened, allowing oil to spill into the water, Allen said.
  • The New York Times reported early Thursday that rig workers said in a confidential survey before the April 20 explosion that they were concerned about safety and the condition of some equipment on board.
  • The Times reported that another report conducted for Transocean by Lloyd's Register Group found that several pieces of equipment - including the rams in the failed blowout preventer on the well head - had not been inspected since 2000, despite guidelines calling for inspection every three to five years. Transocean said most of the equipment was minor and the blowout preventer was inspected by manufacturer guidelines.
  • BP's broken well spewed somewhere between 94 million and 184 million gallons into the Gulf before the cap was attached. The crisis - the biggest offshore oil spill in U.S. history - unfolded after the BP-leased Deepwater Horizon rig exploded April 20, killing 11 workers.

The Associated Press contributed to this report.


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