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Ships evacuate, but oil cap stays closed as storm nears

Vice President Joe Biden talked to reporters and employees yesterday at the oil boom decontamination unit at the Theodore Staging Facility in Theodore, Ala. A storm system that began over the Bahamas developed into Tropical Storm Bonnie yesterday and is expected to hit the gulf by the weekend. Vice President Joe Biden talked to reporters and employees yesterday at the oil boom decontamination unit at the Theodore Staging Facility in Theodore, Ala.
A storm system that began over the Bahamas developed into Tropical Storm Bonnie yesterday and is expected to hit the gulf by the weekend. (Dave Martin/Associated Press)
By Harry R. Weber and David Dishneau
Associated Press / July 23, 2010

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ON THE GULF OF MEXICO — Key ships stationed over BP’s crippled well in the Gulf of Mexico were ordered to evacuate yesterday ahead of Tropical Storm Bonnie, and engineers have grown so confident in the leaky cap fixed to the well head that they will leave it closed while they are gone.

Bonnie, which blossomed over the Bahamas and was to enter the Gulf of Mexico by the weekend, could delay by another 12 days the push to plug the broken well for good using mud and cement, retired Coast Guard Admiral Thad Allen and BP officials conceded. Even if it is not a direct hit, the rough weather will push back efforts to kill the well by at least a week.

“While this is not a hurricane, it’s a storm that will have probably some significant impacts; we’re taking appropriate cautions,’’ Allen said in Mobile, Ala.

Allen issued the order last night to begin moving from the spill site dozens of vessels, including the rig that is drilling the relief tunnel engineers will use to permanently throttle the free-flowing crude near the bottom of the well. Some vessels could stay on site, he said.

“While these actions may delay the effort to kill the well for several days, the safety of the individuals at the well site is our highest concern,’’ he said in a statement.

A week of steady measurements through cameras and other devices convinced Allen they do not need to open vents to relieve pressure on the cap. Engineers had worried pressure might contribute to leaks underground and an even bigger blowout. The cap was attached a week ago, and only minor leaks have been detected.

Allen said earlier in the day that evacuating the vessels could leave the well head unmonitored for up to a few days. He said he ordered BP to make sure that the ships carrying the robotic submarines watching the well are the last to leave and the first to return.

It was unclear last night whether some of the vessels would go back to port or head further south in the gulf, out of the path of the storm, and await orders once the storm passes. The Coast Guard cutter Decisive, the hurricane guard for the vessels at the spill site, was awaiting instructions. In an evacuation, the Decisive is the last vessel to leave the area.

Bonnie caused flooding in Puerto Rico, the Dominican Republic, and Haiti before reaching tropical storm strength later yesterday.

Scientists say even a severe storm should not affect the well cap, nearly a mile beneath the ocean surface and 40 miles from the Louisiana coast. “Assuming all lines are disconnected from the surface, there should be no effect on the well head by a passing surface storm,’’ said Paul Bommer, lecturer in petroleum engineering at University of Texas at Austin.

Charles Harwell, a BP contractor monitoring the cap, was also confident.

“That cap was specially made, it’s on tight, we’ve been looking at the progress and it’s all good,’’ he said after his ship returned to Port Fourchon, La.

Vice President Joe Biden visited cleanup workers in southern Alabama, and said he was cheered the cap could remain on.

“After the storm’s passage we will be right back out there,’’ Biden said.

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