Gathering storm halts Gulf oil well work

NEW ORLEANS If a storm moves into the Gulf, ships would have to leave and /*BP*/ couldn't observe the capped well, according to the federal government's oil spill chief.

They could decide to open the cap that's choked off the flow of oil for nearly a week.

The 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 50 percent chance of becoming a tropical depression or a tropical storm by Friday.

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.

As the storm drew closer, boat captains hired by BP for skimming duty were sent home and told they wouldn't be going back out for five or six days, said Tom Ard, president of the Orange Beach Fishing Association in Alabama.

Even if the storm does not hit the area directly, it could affect the effort to contain the oil and clean it up.

On the Gulf, BP vice president Kent Wells said crews hope to drill sideways into the blown-out well and intercept it at the end of July. The relief well is necessary to plug the well permanently.

It extends about two miles under the seabed and is about 50 to 60 feet vertically and four feet horizontally from the ruptured well.

After it's done, crews will begin the kill procedure, pumping mud and cement into the hole a mile underwater to seal it, which BP said could take anywhere from five days to a couple of weeks.

Latest Developments:

  • A published report says BP's beleaguered CEO, /*Tony Hayward*/, plans to step down after a series of PR blunders, including yacht racing during the spill and saying he wanted his life back. The Times newspaper in London, quoting company sources it did not identify, said Wednesday that Hayward was likely to go by early September.
  • Shares of British-based BP PLC, which have lost about 40 percent since the disaster began in April, were up more than 3 percent Wednesday on the London Stock Exchange after the company announced a $7 billion asset sale to Houston-based Apache Corp. to help pay for the catastrophe.
  • Just weeks after promising to raise $10 billion by selling pieces of its business, BP said Tuesday that Apache will buy properties in the U.S., Canada and Egypt. BP says it has spent nearly $4 billion on the spill so far and is on the hook for a $20 billion fund for damaged Gulf residents and businesses.
  • Kenneth Feinberg said Wednesday that the $20 billion Gulf oil spill compensation fund will be "up and running in August," and will be both generous and fairly administered. However, Feinberg told the House Judiciary Committee that he will have to make tough decisions about eligibility. He'll need to decide how to compensate fishermen and others who are paid in cash and have no records. Decisions will made on paying businesses such as motels that are miles from the Gulf Coast, but lost guests because of the drop in tourism.

The Associated Press contributed to this report.

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