Key ships evacuate as storm approaches Gulf of Mexico


With a tropical storm approaching, hundreds of workers and more than a dozen vessels will begin moving from the Deepwater Horizon blowout site Friday, stopping work on the long-awaited final “kill” of the well for more than a week.

The decision to begin the evacuation was made by retired Coast Guard Adm. Thad Allen, the national incident commander, after concluding that Tropical Storm Bonnie would likely hit the site with winds above 40 mph on Saturday morning.

“Due to the risk that Tropical Storm Bonnie poses to the safety of the nearly 2,000 people responding to the BP oil spill at the well site, many of the vessels and rigs will be preparing to move out of harm’s way beginning tonight. This includes the rig drilling the relief well that will ultimately kill the well, as well as other vessels needed for containment. Some of the vessels may be able to remain on site, but we will err on the side of safety.”

Allen and BP Senior Vice President Kent Wells said that the containment cap placed on the well last week is sufficiently secure that it can ride out a tropical storm without leaking or compromising the now-controlled well.

Because both the blown-out well and the two relief wells being drilled nearby are connected in various ways to boats on the surface, BP’s first task has been to begin disconnecting them and taking the precautions it can.

“We’ve already been preparing for several days,” Wells said before the final decision was made to evacuate. BP officials said that the vessels would move out of harm’s way but would not return to port.

Vessels will be moved out according to their ability to withstand the conditions. Wells said that if the forecast changes before all the boats leave, crews could begin to work again more quickly. But a full evacuation would mean 10 to 12 days of lost time at the site.

The coming storm may well push oil into the fragile marshlands of Louisiana, and potentially could be more damaging than Tropical Storm Alex, which had that effect last month. Alex was hundreds of miles away from the well site and the Louisiana coast but it created waves large and strong enough to carry the oily water to formerly unaffected areas.

Reflecting the growing concern about Bonnie, Louisiana Gov. Bobby Jindal declared a state of emergency Thursday; the storm is forecast to hit Louisiana on Sunday.

Jindal announced the action at a news conference in Baton Rouge just before U.S. forecasters determined it was a tropical storm strong enough to get a name.

Other companies have been evacuating personnel in the Gulf as well. Shell Oil evacuated 160 employees and contract workers Wednesday, and had 20 helicopters were ferrying others Thursday from both the eastern and central sections of the gulf.

The storm system caused flooding in Puerto Rico, the Dominican Republic and Haiti before reaching tropical storm strength. Seas already were choppy near shore, with waves up to five feet rocking boats as crews prepared to leave. More of the smaller boats involved in the coastal cleanup were called into port, Coast Guard Rear Adm. Paul Zukunft said.

Only several weeks ago, the prospect of a violent storm hitting the Deepwater site was worrisome. With the well only partially capped, oil and gas were still leaking out in substantial amounts and flowing through makeshift pipes to waiting collection vessels. If a major storm had hit before the containment cap was installed last week, those receiving vessels would have had to evacuate, too, and the full geyser would have returned.

Allen has remained cautious about the stability of the containment cap, giving BP permission to continue with it only day by day. But on Thursday he said that government and BP scientists had succeeded in narrowing down the number of possible problems and had substantially increased his confidence that the cap was holding.

“I have to give a tremendous shout out to [Energy] Secretary [Steven] Chu and the science team for methodically, everyday, twice a day sitting down with the seismic acoustical data, the anomalies that were detected, having a coordinated way to send ROVs out there to rule out the fact that they might be indicative of a well integrity issue.” In other words, that the cap was holding and the pressure below appeared to be under control.

The containment cap is a mile under water, deep enough that it will not be seriously effected by a storm.

Also Thursday, the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration announced that 26,388 square miles of gulf waters would be reopened to commercial and recreational fishing. The reopening of a third of the overall closed area was announced after consultation with Food and Drug Administration about the safety of eating the fish.

Since mid-June, neither NOAA nor the United States Coast Guard observers flying over the area have seen any oil. Additionally, models show a low risk for future exposure to oil in the area, and fish caught in the area and tested by NOAA have shown no signs of contamination.

“Today’s decision is good news for gulf fishermen and American consumers,” Commerce Secretary Gary Locke said. “Following the best science for this reopening provides important assurance to the American people that the seafood they buy is safe and protects the gulf seafood brand and the many people who depend on it for their livelihoods.”

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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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