- environment - Oil spill - USA
Tropical storm forces Gulf oil spill vessels to pull back
Tropical storm Bonnie has forced the evacuation of oil spill vessels in the Gulf of Mexico Friday, threatening to further delay efforts to put an end to the largest environmental disaster in US history.
AFP - A disruptive storm system moved toward the Gulf of Mexico oil spill area Saturday, forcing response crews to head inland for safety and halting work to permanently plug the ruptured BP well.
Tropical depression Bonnie sent crews packing aboard 11 offshore platforms, a container ship and two rigs, as the evacuation also suspended at least 28 percent of Gulf oil production.
Officials said a cap that has kept oil from escaping the blown out BP well since last Thursday would stay in place, after a week of tests suggested pressure would not force oil out through new leaks.
Retired Coast Guard Admiral Thad Allen, the US official overseeing the spill response, said the evacuation would set back efforts to finally "kill" the leaking well by several days, and could leave the cap unmonitored until the storm passes.
With the safety of workers at the well site a top concern, Allen said the rough weather had forced crews to collect boom and return ships to shore and some of the 2,000-strong crew responding to the spill headed back to land.
"The intention right now is to put the vessels in a safe place so they can return as quickly as possible to resume their operations," he told reporters.
He said officials estimated that "if we abandon the scene, it would be 48 hours before we would be back on."
The oncoming storm has forced a halt to the process of concreting the casing on the first of two relief wells.
Once concrete can be set, a process expected to take two days, officials hope to perform a "static kill" to plug the well by injecting heavy drilling mud and cement through the cap at the top.
The final operation to cement the reservoir through a relief well will take another week, Allen said.
First Lady Michelle Obama, visiting Pascagoula, Mississippi, promised the US government would not forget those affected.
"This isn't over yet. And this administration is going to stand with the people of the Gulf until folks are made whole again," she said.
Crews began preparing for the storm on Thursday, after forecasters said Bonnie could affect the entire northern Gulf Coast, a 330-mile (530-kilometer) stretch from western Florida, through the states of Alabama and Mississippi to New Orleans and the delta regions of Louisiana.
Bonnie struck south Florida as a tropical storm early Friday, weakening into a tropical depression before it headed out over the Gulf, where the US National Hurricane Center forecast it would strengthen again when it churns over warm waters.
The center of the depression was about 85 miles (135 kilometers) southwest of Sarasota, Florida, early Saturday, the center said.
While not expected to grow into a hurricane, Bonnie has renewed concern about severe storms hampering oil clean-up operations and worsening conditions along the coast, where 629 miles (1,012 kilometers) of shoreline have been oiled across all five US states on Gulf Coast.
NHC predicted Bonnie would hit the northern Gulf Coast late Saturday, raising water levels by up to five feet (1.5 meters) above ground level.
Allen said the storm might be mild enough to allow some vessels to remain at the well site.
"The seismic survey vessels, the acoustic vessels and the vessels operating the ROVs (underwater robots) will stay as long as possible, and if conditions allow it they will remain through the passage of the storm," he said.
But if the ships are forced to depart, engineers will have no real-time information about the state of the wellbore below the sealing cap.
Hydrophones will take recordings, but Allen said the information could only be analyzed after the fact.
"Our only real-time feedback will be aerial surveillance and satellite imagery," he said.
Separately, a former rig worker told federal investigators that an alarm that should have alerted Deepwater Horizon workers to a deadly build-up of gas had been muted months before the April 20 explosion that killed 11 workers and sank the rig, triggering the worst US oil spill in history.
The system, which uses lights and alarms to warn of fire or high levels of toxic or explosive gases, had been "inhibited," Mike Williams, the chief electronics technician on the rig, told a hearing looking into the disaster.
Rig owner Transocean sought to rebut Williams's testimony, insisting the configuration was "intentional" and conformed to maritime practice.