Crews hurry to plug well after Bonnie breezes by

Local fisherman work the waters around Grand Isle, La., as Tropical Depression Bonnie approaches the coast Saturday, July 24, 2010. Oil cleanup staging areas have been evacuated and equipment moved north away from the storm. (AP Photo/Dave Martin)
July 24, 2010 5:56:22 PM PDT
Crews hurried to get back to work on plugging BP's leaky oil well Saturday after Tropical Storm Bonnie fizzled, and engineers hoped for a window of clear weather long enough to stop the gusher for good. But with peak hurricane season starting in early August, chances are the next big storm is right on Bonnie's heels.

"We're going to be playing a cat-and-mouse game for the remainder of the hurricane season," retired Coast Guard Admiral Thad Allen said Saturday. Sure enough, another disturbance already was brewing in the Caribbean, although forecasters said it wasn't likely to strengthen into a tropical storm.

In the past 10 years, an average of five named storms have hit the Gulf each hurricane season. This year, two have struck already -- Bonnie and Hurricane Alex at the end of June, which delayed cleanup of BP's massive oil spill for a week even though it didn't get closer than 500 miles from the well.

"Usually you don't see the first hurricane statistically until Aug. 10," said Dennis Feltgen, a spokesman for the National Hurricane Center in Miami. "The 2010 hurricane season is running just ahead of a typical pace."

Bonnie pushed back efforts to solidly seal the well by at least a week, said Allen, the government's point man on the spill and a veteran of the Coast Guard's rescue mission after Hurricane Katrina.

Completion now looks possible by mid-August, but Allen said he wouldn't hesitate to order another evacuation based on similar forecasts.

"We have no choice but to start well ahead of time if we think the storm track is going to bring gale force winds, which are 39 mph or above, anywhere close to well site," Allen said.

Hurricane season ends Nov. 30.

Even though the evacuation turned out to be short-lived, it revealed one important fact: BP and the federal government are very confident in the temporary plug that has mostly contained the oil for eight days.

They didn't loose the cap even when they thought they'd lose sight of it during the evacuation, although in the end, the real-time cameras that have given the world a constant view of the ruptured well apparently never stopped rolling.

Ironically, the storm may even have a positive effect. Churning waters could actually help dissipate oil in the water, spreading out the surface slick and breaking up tar balls, said Jane Lubchenco, leader of the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration.

Beaches may look cleaner in some areas as the storm surge pulls oil away, though other areas could see oil washed ashore.

"I think the bottom line is it's better than it might have been," Lubchenco said.

Still, the storm has hurt the operation. Work on the relief tunnel stopped Wednesday, and it will take time to restart.

The rig drilling the relief tunnel that will blast mud into the broken well to permanently seal it started steaming back toward the well on Saturday morning.

Workers who spent Thursday and Friday pulling nearly a mile of segmented steel pipe out of the water and stacking the 40-to-50 foot sections on deck will now have to reverse the process, and it will likely be Monday before BP can resume drilling.

By Wednesday, workers finish installing steel casing to fortify the relief shaft, Allen said, and by Friday, crews might start blasting in heavy mud and cement through the mechanical cap, the first phase of a two-step process to seal the well for good. That could kill the well right away, but BP will still finish drilling the relief tunnel -- which could take up to a week -- to pump in more mud and cement from nearly two miles under the sea floor.

But the clear weather may not hold for long, said Joe Bastardi, Accuweather's chief meteorologist of State College, Pa.

"From what I'm seeing in the tropics, it's like a pot boiling and the lid's going to blow off," Bastardi said.


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