Drilling on relief well suspended due to weather


(CNN) — Strong thunderstorms and gusty winds could move over the site of BP’s crippled well in the Gulf of Mexico starting Wednesday.

As a result, drilling was suspended Tuesday on the final 50 feet of a relief well that is expected to intercept with the damaged well.

The National Hurricane Center issued a tropical storm warning for the northern coast of the Gulf of Mexico as the fifth tropical depression of the Atlantic hurricane season formed in the southeastern Gulf.

The storm — which would be named Danielle if, as expected, it reaches tropical storm status — grew from tropical wave status about 375 miles southeast of the mouth of the Mississippi River and was headed in that direction at about 6 mph. Tropical Depression 5’s top sustained winds reached 35 mph — just short of the 39 mph tropical storm threshold.

While the undersea gusher in the Gulf has been brought under control, retired Coast Guard Adm. Thad Allen, the Obama administration’s point man for the disaster, told CNN’s “State of the Union” that the problems are far from over.

“If you’re sitting in Barataria Bay, it’s still a disaster,” he said. “If the folks have not come back to the panhandle of Florida, it’s still a disaster.”

A report from the National Oceanographic and Atmospheric Administration last week found three-quarters of the oil spilled between late April and mid-July has been collected, dispersed or evaporated.

“It’s a catastrophe,” Allen said. “It’s a catastrophe for the people of the Gulf, and it requires our attention until we get the job done.”

The well erupted after an April 20 explosion aboard the drilling rig Deepwater Horizon that left 11 men dead. A temporary cap contained the spill on July 15, and nearly 3,000 barrels of heavy drilling mud and cement drove the well back into the ocean floor last week.

The final step — the completion of a relief well that will permanently seal the blowout from below — is expected to be completed by the end of this weekend.

The spill inflicted heavy blows on Gulf Coast industries like tourism and fishing, but Allen said some parts of the region are beginning to see a recovery.

“It’s starting to happen already, but it’s happening incrementally, where the oil is not there now, where we’ve cleaned it up,” he said. “Some beaches are reopening. Fisheries are reopening. And that will happen as soon as we can, either by cleaning up the oil or having the areas tested through NOAA and FDA for seafood safety and so forth.”

The well gushed an estimated 53,000 barrels (2.3 million gallons) of oil per day before it was capped. Since then, fresh, green grass has begun growing again in some of the hardest-hit marshes of southern Louisiana, but oil continues to wash ashore in places.

Federal authorities say up to 1 million barrels of oil may still lie beneath the surface of the Gulf. White House environmental adviser Carol Browner said cleanup crews from the government and well owner BP fought to keep the oil out of beaches and coast marches, but what did reach shore “has to be cleaned up.”

“Some of it may continue to come on shore, the residual. It’ll come on in tar balls and tar mats, and that can be cleaned up,” Browner said. In addition, she said scientists are examining marine life in the Gulf, “and right now nobody is seeing anything of concern.”

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Stuart H. Smith is an attorney based in New Orleans fighting major oil companies and other polluters.
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