Evacuation called off, ships return to leaky oil well as tropical rainstorm weakens over Gulf

By Harry R. Weber, AP
Saturday, July 24, 2010

Ships head back to oil spill as storm breezes by

NEW ORLEANS — BP’s evacuation of the Gulf of Mexico was called off Saturday and ships headed back to resume work on plugging the leaky well as remnants of Tropical Storm Bonnie breezed past.

The temporary plug that has mostly contained the oil for eight days held, and the real-time cameras that have given the world a constant view of the ruptured well apparently never stopped rolling. Dozens of ships evacuated the Gulf, but the storm had weakened to a tropical depression by the time it hit the spill site Saturday morning.

Thad Allen, the retired Coast Guard admiral running the government’s spill response, called it “very good news.” But the setback was still significant. Work came to a standstill Wednesday and will take time to restart.

Allen said drill rig workers who spent Thursday and Friday pulling nearly a mile of segmented steel pipe out of the water and stacking the 40-to-50 foot sections on deck would have to reverse the process.

It could be Friday before workers can start blasting in heavy mud and cement through the mechanical cap, the first phase of a two-step process to seal the leaking oil well for good.

And the threat of severe weather remains. Already, another disturbance was brewing in the Caribbean, although it wasn’t likely to strengthen into a tropical storm.

Hurricane season moves into its most active period in early August and extending into September.

“We’re going to be playing a cat-and-mouse game for the remainder of the hurricane season,” Allen said Saturday morning.

Jane Lubchenco, administrator of the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration, said waves near the well head could reach eight feet by Saturday evening.

She said no significant storm surge was expected along the coast, and that the wave action could actually help dissipate oil in the water, spreading out the surface slick and breaking up tar balls.

“I think the bottom line is it’s better than it might have been,” Lubchenco said.

It could be Monday before BP resumes drilling on the relief well and Wednesday before they finish installing steel casing to fortify the relief shaft, Allen said.

By Friday, workers could start blasting in heavy mud and cement from the top of the well, which could kill it right away. BP will still finish drilling the relief tunnel — which could take up to a week — to pump in more mud and cement from nearly two miles under the sea floor.

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.

The plug is so far beneath the ocean surface, scientists say even a severe storm shouldn’t damage it.

“There’s almost no chance it’ll have any impact on the well head or the cap because it’s right around 5,000 feet deep and even the largest waves won’t get down that far,” said Don Van Nieuwenhuise, director of professional geoscience programs at the University of Houston.

Associated Press writer Mary Foster in Grand Isle, La., contributed to this report.

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