By Krissah Thompson
Washington Post Staff Writer
Sunday, June 27, 2010; A06
Storms in the Caribbean are the latest threat to the frustratingly slow effort to contain and clean up the massive oil spill in the Gulf of Mexico.
Meteorologists say Tropical Storm Alex, which is brewing in the western Caribbean, is not on pace to hit the oil well, but it has prompted the team overseeing the spill site to heighten emergency planning.
If a storm with gale-force winds comes within five days of reaching the gushing oil well, crews would begin packing up to return to shore, said Coast Guard Adm. Thad W. Allen, who is overseeing the crisis for the government. A full evacuation could stop containment activities for two weeks.
"We are watching the storm track, and if we think it is turned in such a way that it would cross the site, we would activate the plans," Allen said Saturday on a call with reporters. "We are engaged constantly with the National Hurricane Center. . . . We all know that the weather is unpredictable."
Allen and his team might be forced to make tough and consequential predictions anyway. More than 30,000 people and 6,000 ships are working on the spill, and they will need several days' warning to get out of a storm's way. If a storm pops up in the gulf suddenly, people can be evacuated in a tighter time frame, but those contingency plans risk damaging key equipment.
"The safety of life is the number one priority," Allen said.
BP is working to shorten the time needed to secure or move all of its equipment from five days to two, company spokesman Bill Salvin told the Associated Press. The equipment includes the ships processing the oil sucked up by the containment cap on the well and the rigs drilling the two relief wells.
A full evacuation would force BP to disconnect the ships from the containment cap now funneling half or more of the leaking oil to tankers waiting above the well a mile below the surface. Allen said the workers would return to shore, wait out the storm and then reconnect the complicated equipment. BP is working to develop a containment system that would be easier to disconnect and hook back up.
The construction of the two relief wells, projected to be done by mid-August, would also be impeded by stormy weather. Those relief wells are the best hope of halting the oil that has been gushing into gulf waters since April 20 in the biggest offshore oil spill in U.S. history.
BP is capturing 20,000 to 28,500 barrels (840,000 to 1.2 million gallons) of oil a day. Worst-case government estimates say 59,500 barrels (2.5 million gallons) a day are leaking from the well, although that number is a rough approximation.
Alex, which was rated a tropical storm early Saturday, is the first of many expected this hurricane season. It was headed to the Yucatan Peninsula at 9 mph with winds of 45 mph, according to the hurricane center.