New Orleans, Louisiana (CNN) — BP’s efforts to contain the largest oil spill in U.S. history are being disrupted by towering waves reaching up to 12 feet in height, company officials said.
Even though Hurricane Alex — which was upgraded from tropical storm status late Tuesday night — is headed away from the area affected by the oil spill, its winds and the waves the storm is producing are forcing BP officials to send oil skimming ships back to shore, from Louisiana to the Florida Panhandle.
High tide and rough sea conditions are also restricting onshore personnel clean-up duties Wednesday morning, according to Charles Taplin, a spokesman at the Unified Command Joint Information Center in Houma, Louisiana.
Also under consideration is whether to continue the use of aerial dispersants while the storm is affecting the region, Taplin said.
BP has two vessels, the Discoverer Enterprise and the Q4000, that were being used to contain oil. The company was hoping to bring in a third Tuesday called the Helix Producer, which would increase containment by 20,000 to 25,000 more barrels per day.
The arrival of the new vessel would have to be delayed until perhaps July 6 or 7 because of choppy sea conditions, said Mark Proegler, a spokesman for BP.
Even though Hurricane Alex will not move directly into the region affected by the oil spill, planners with the Louisiana governor’s Office of Homeland Security and Emergency Preparedness this week created a hurricane evacuation plan with BP, said the office’s director Mark Cooper.
The plan, applicable for the entire hurricane season — which ends November 30 — calls for BP’s thousands of workers to leave the Louisiana coast at least 16 hours before officials begin evacuating residents.
“We can’t have BP blocking our roadways with equipment and personnel,” said Cooper.
It also designates 700 buses to be used only by disabled residents and calls for BP to be back on the scene combating the spill within 72 hours after a hurricane, said Cooper.
The first June hurricane to form since 1995 may delay clean-up efforts in the Gulf for several days, but it is expected to be business as usual in Washington Wednesday when the widows of two workers killed in the BP oil rig explosion are scheduled to appear for a congressional hearing aimed at holding responsible parties accountable for the oil disaster.
Shelly Anderson and Natalie Roshton, whose husbands were among the 11 workers killed in the April 20 explosion, are expected to testify at the U.S. Senate Committee on Commerce, Science, and Transportation Wednesday morning.
Meanwhile, Vice President Joe Biden toured affected areas in coastal Gulf states Tuesday and said Gulf state health and fisheries officials and leaders from several federal agencies will collaborate to set safety levels for seafood coming out of the Gulf of Mexico.
“We want one single standard so you don’t have to worry about where you fish, when you can fish,” Biden said. “Bottom line is, we want to get fishermen back out on the water as soon as possible after the oil has been removed.”
The plan will be devised and carried out in collaboration with the Food and Drug Administration and the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration, he said.
Representatives from NOAA, the Food and Drug Administration and the Environmental Protection Agency met last week in New Orleans with state health officers and state fisheries directors from Alabama, Florida, Louisiana, Mississippi and Texas to fine-tune the plan for sampling state and federal waters and deciding when to reopen them.
Researchers have estimated that between 35,000 barrels (about 1.5 million gallons) and 60,000 barrels (about 2.5 million gallons) of oil are gushing into the gulf every day.
The oil has washed up on the shores of at least four Gulf states and put many in the seafood business out of work.