As soon as a weakened Tropical Depression Bonnie breezed past the Northern Gulf Saturday afternoon, BP wasted no time redeploying drilling rigs back to finish the job of permanently sealing the damaged oil well.
“We’ve been in need of some good news,” said Jeff Hamilton, 50, of New Orleans, as he walked along Grand Isle beach Saturday drinking a can of Bud Light. “No more delays.”
Bonnie wreaked much less havoc than forecasters expected, weakening from a tropical storm over South Florida to not much more than a thunderstorm with sustained winds of less than 25 mph by the time it passed the oil spill site in the Northern Gulf Saturday afternoon.
Now the rush is on to permanently plug the well site before another storm forms during this hurricane season, which meteorologists predict will be busier than normal.
While Bonnie turned out to be a dud of a storm, just the threat of tropical winds of 38 mph or greater and high seas led to evacuations of 10 to 15 ships working on the two relief wells and the disassembly of a mile-long steel riser pipe that connects to the primary well.
The result: about a 7- to 9-day delay in finishing the ultimate fix, pushing back the estimated completion date of mid-August, retired Coast Guard Adm. Thad Allen, who is leading the government’s spill response, said at a press briefing Saturday.
Any delay is not good news for officials and coastal residents desperate to finally resolve the country’s biggest environmental disaster. It’s been more than three months since the April 20 explosion aboard the BP-leased Deepwater Horizon oil platform, which killed 11 workers and has decimated the region’s economy.
Bonnie did have a bright side. The depression’s wave action of less than 6 feet in the Northern Gulf will churn the surface oil slicks, spreading them out and breaking up tar patties into smaller tar balls for quicker natural biodegradation, said Jane Lubchenco, administrator of the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration.
The size of the surface oil already had been greatly reduced by skimming and burning since the capping of the damaged oil well more than a week ago, preventing the daily spewing of up to 50,000 barrels of oil into the water.
The storm was too weak to churn up any oil deep under the sea, Lubchenco added. But the depression could drive some weathered oil into marshes and bayous and onto beaches. Its counter-clockwise rotation also could move some oil away from the coastlines.
“The bottom line: it’s better than it might have been,” Lubchenco said.
No oil leaked from the Deepwater Horizon site during the storm, Allen said. The tight-fitting containment cap that has kept oil from leaking remained in place. With Bonnie bearing down Friday, Incident Command and BP decided to leave two vessels with skeleton staffs at the site. They monitored the cap using video imaging and at least one underwater robot. Seismic readings were stopped during the storm, Allen said.
Development Driller III, which is working on the primary relief well, was expected to be back at the well site by Sunday or early Monday morning. Some smaller support vessels took safe harbor up the Mississippi River and may take longer to return to the site of the blowout.
Workers spent Thursday and Friday disassembling nearly a mile of steel pipe that goes down to the sea floor in 40- to 50-foot sections, a safety measure ahead of the storm.
Once the drilling rig is back on site, it will take about 12 hours to reassemble the pipe and be ready to begin where they left off when operations stopped Wednesday.
Crews must first finish the final casing for the relief well and pour cement over it to keep it in place before the “hydrostatic top kill” operation can begin.
Allen estimated Saturday that the top kill could begin within three to five days. Crews will pump heavy mud through the blowout preventer valve system that rests on the top of the well and then inject cement to seal it.
If the operation is successful, it could “kill” the well. Technicians would be able to quickly determine the success.
The relief well will take longer to complete, providing the final sealing of a well that has resulted in more than 5 million barrels of oil polluting the Gulf and its Northern fishing grounds.
Residents of coastal Louisiana were relieved that Bonnie wasn’t much more than a rainstorm, allowing for oil recovery to resume quickly.
“At one point they were talking about taking barges and skimmers 100 to 200 miles away from here,” said Kevin David, president of St. Tammany Parish in southeast Louisiana, neighboring the Mississippi state line.
“Imagine what kind of setback that would have caused,” David said.
He was one of several Parish presidents who had butted heads with BP officials in the days before the storm, insisting they not relocate the booms and barges serving as a line of defense against encroaching oil.
David issued an executive order prohibiting workers from removing any protective oil gear from the area without the Parish’s consent.
“It put us into a headlock with the BP authorities,” David said. “But our biggest concern was thinking the storm would push more oil inland.”
Bonnie threatened to cancel Saturday’s Island Aid concert to benefit those affected in the sleepy fishing village of Grand Isle, now called on some signs: “Grand Oil.”
But the show went on, featuring Lee Ann Rimes.
“If it’s not one thing, it’s been another this summer,” said Mary Stevens, 57, as she waited for the music to play. “Bonnie didn’t hit us that hard, so I’m hoping it’s a sign of better news still coming our way.”