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Ships evacuate oil spill site as storm nears

July 23, 2010 12:00:00 AM PDT
Work to permanently choke off BP's broken oil well stalled Friday as Tropical Storm Bonnie raced toward the Gulf of Mexico and dozens of ships evacuated the area.Experts are so confident in the stability of an experimental plug that they won't open it even if the storm hits directly. Engineers will likely lose sight of the temporary cap for at least a few days.

Meanwhile, Tropical Storm Bonnie made landfall in Florida south of Miami Friday morning with top sustained winds of 40 miles per hour. The storm was on a track to pick up strength as it crosses the Gulf, reaching the site of the oil spill by Sunday.

According to retired Coast Guard Adm. Thad Allen and BP officials, the rough weather could delay by another 12 days the push to plug the broken well for good using mud and cement.

And 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," said Allen.

The delay in work would be worse if the oil giant had to fully open the cap while the ships closely monitoring the well head left. Additional 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.

Allen issued the order Thursday night 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 crude near the bottom of the well.

Latest Developments:

  • Scientists say even a severe storm shouldn't affect the well cap, nearly a mile beneath the ocean surface 40 miles from the Louisiana coast. "Assuming all lines are disconnected from the surface, there should be no effect on the well head by a passing surface storm," said Paul Bommer, professor of petroleum engineering at University of Texas at Austin.
  • Before the cap was attached and closed a week ago, the broken well spewed 94 million to 184 million gallons into the Gulf after the BP-leased Deepwater Horizon rig exploded April 20, killing 11 workers.
  • Shell Oil is also evacuating its operations in the Gulf, moving out more than 600 workers and shutting down production at all but one well.

The Associated Press contributed to this report.


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