ON THE GULF OF MEXICO Key ships stationed over BPs crippled well in the Gulf of Mexico were ordered to evacuate Thursday ahead of Tropical Storm Bonnie, but engineers have grown so confident in the leaky cap fixed to the well head that they will leave it closed while they are gone.
Tropical Storm Bonnie, which blossomed over the Bahamas and was to enter the Gulf of Mexico by the weekend, could delay by another 12 days the push to plug the broken well for good using mud and cement, retired Coast Guard Adm. Thad Allen and BP officials conceded. Even if its 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, its a storm that will have probably some significant impacts, were taking appropriate cautions, Allen said in Mobile, Ala.
Allen issued the order Thursday night to begin moving dozens of vessels from the spill site, including the rig thats drilling the relief tunnel engineers will use to permanently throttle the free-flowing crude near the bottom of the well. Some vessels could stay on site, he said.
While these actions may delay the effort to kill the well for several days, the safety of the individuals at the well site is our highest concern, he said in a statement.
A week of steady measurements through cameras and other devices convinced Allen they dont 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 storm system caused flooding in Puerto Rico, the Dominican Republic and Haiti before reaching tropical storm strength later Thursday, and Allen said crews expected sustained wind above 39 mph at the spill site by early Saturday.
Seas already were choppy in the Gulf, with 5-foot waves rocking boats as crews prepared to leave, and more of the smaller boats involved in the coastal cleanup were called into port, Coast Guard Rear Adm. Paul Zukunft said.
Louisiana Gov. Bobby Jindal said he expects local leaders in coastal parishes to call for evacuation of low-lying areas as early as this morning.
At the spill site, the water no longer looks thick with gooey tar. But the oil is still there beneath the surface, staining the hull of cutters motoring around in it.
Scientists say even a severe storm shouldnt 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.