Rough seas halt skimming operations off Gulf

NEW ORLEANS Coast Guard officials say all cleanup efforts have been halted for the time being off the Louisiana coast. Efforts have also been halted off the coasts of Florida, Alabama and Mississippi.

Authorities say workers are using the time off to perform maintenance work on equipment and to replenish supplies.

/*Tropical Storm Alex*/ was projected to stay well away from the spill zone before possibly making landfall as a hurricane as early as Wednesday just south of the U.S.-Mexico border. But its outer edges reached out to the oil spill areas, causing problems.

The surging waves and nasty weather make skimming work unsafe and ineffective, and also can mangle oil-soaking booms.

The only vessels left in the water were being used to capture or burn oil and gas leaking from the well and to drill two relief wells that officials say are the best hope for stopping the leak for good.

However, the rough weather may give nature a hand in breaking down crude from the massive /*oil spill*/.

Waves tossed up by Alex reached as high as 12 feet. They could break up the patches of crude scattered across the waters. The stronger-than-normal winds radiated from the storm could also help the oil evaporate faster.

Pulling crews and boats off the water could cost precious time. Equipment has to be stripped down, packed and protected from the force of the storm. Then they would need to be reassembled and deployed. With the clock ticking, the environmental and monetary costs could climb exponentially.

But Coast Guard Adm. Thad Allen, the federal government's point man for the spill response, said the storm wasn't expected to affect two relief wells being drilled, considered the best hope of plugging the leak.

Even 12-foot waves aren't enough to stop the tanker that is sucking up large quantities of oil through the cap on the well, or a second vessel that is burning off hundreds of thousands of gallons at the surface, Allen said.

Forecasters predict that the nasty weather will likely linger in the Gulf through Thursday.

Latest Developments:

  • Tropical Storm Alex has sustained winds near 70 mph so far. Landfall is predicted Wednesday night. Forecasters say they expect the storm to be a less powerful hurricane than initially thought. Tropical storm-force winds extended up to 105 miles from the storm's center, and Alex was moving toward the northwest at 12 mph. Specialist say Alex's center wasn't expected to approach the oil spill site, but the storm's outer wind field could push more oil onto land and hinder operations in the area.
  • Although Louisiana's coastal wetlands have been hit hardest by the Gulf oil spill, scientists are concluding that they have come through so far fairly unscathed. Damage has been severe in some locations, especially in reedy swamps near the mouth of the Mississippi River. But it's spotty and confined mostly to outer fringes of islands topped with marsh grasses and mangrove bushes. Little oil has advanced more than a few yards toward the interior, despite the many openings created by a labyrinth of natural bayous and man-made canals.
  • Billy Nungesser, the blunt-spoken president of oil-soaked /*Plaquemines Parish*/ has been the voice of thousands of coastal residents. The 51-year-old feisty millionaire-turned-politician from Louisiana's bayou hasn't been afraid of speaking up about the oil spill. Nungesser said the federal government's point man, Coast Guard Adm. Thad Allen, isn't the right man for cleaning up the massive oil spill in the Gulf of Mexico. He suggested President Barack Obama scrap the team he has working on the mess.
  • The head of a trade group that represents distributors of BP gasoline in the U.S. said Tuesday that the company will be getting cash in their pockets, reductions in credit card fees and help with more national advertising. The cash component will be based on distributors' volume and will be more for outlets along the Gulf Coast than for those elsewhere in the country, said John Kleine of the BP Amoco Marketers Association. He estimates the total package BP is offering at roughly $50 million to $70 million.
  • So far, between 137.6 million and 70.8 million gallons of oil have spewed into the Gulf of Mexico from the broken BP well, according to government and BP estimates. The higher estimate is enough oil to fill half of New York's Empire State Building with oil.
  • AP contributed to this report.

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