Approach of storm delays effort to boost oil extraction from damaged BP well

Cleanup and containment efforts continue at the Gulf of Mexico site of the oil spill following the Deepwater Horizon explosion.
By Ylan Q. Mui and Juliet Eilperin
Washington Post Staff Writer
Tuesday, June 29, 2010

HOUMA, LA. -- Tropical Storm Alex is churning through the Gulf of Mexico as it threatens to become the first storm of this region's notorious hurricane season, forcing officials to delay efforts to double the amount of oil that can be siphoned from BP's damaged well.

Coast Guard Adm. Thad W. Allen said Monday that if the waves reach 12 feet in the next 36 hours, officials will have to disconnect and relocate the drill ship Discoverer Enterprise. That ship is directly over the well that exploded April 20, capturing oil and gas through a cap. But if the ship moves, the cap must come off, and the well will gush freely again until the ship returns.

A full moon and strong southeasterly winds have also prompted a coastal flood watch along the low-lying communities perched on the fingertips of marshy bayous.

Even a small rise in the water level can cause headaches in the cleanup. Oily water would simply float over absorbent booms and the marsh grass they are designed to protect. When the water subsides, the oil would then sit on the grass, one of the most difficult environments to clean.

"Every spill has its own set of challenges," said Doug Helton, incident operations coordinator for the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration. "This one is a tough one."

Officials here and in Washington are girding themselves for a crisis within a crisis if Alex brushes too close to the northern gulf. Kent Wells, BP's executive vice president of exploration and production, said waves in the gulf make it tough for crew members to attach the third vessel -- the Helix Producer -- to the well. The new ship needs calm seas to do the precise work of connecting to the well, and Alex will shove the timetable back six or seven days, Wells said.

"It's just not safe to do it," he said in an interview Monday.

The first of the two relief wells, being drilled by the rig Development Driller III, is within 20 feet of the existing well and is gradually angling in for a "bottom kill" with mud and cement. Wells would not give a timetable and stuck with the earlier prediction that the well-killing would take place in August. The plan is to drill 900 feet down before intercepting the well, he said. The final stages are delicate and slow because of the precision required, he said.

"As it stands right now, absent the intervention of a hurricane, we're still looking at mid-August" to complete the relief well, Allen said.

Although there are no plans to conduct an emergency evacuation of personnel in light of the storm, any evacuation would delay the response effort for 14 days, Allen said. At the staging area for cleanup in Cocodrie, for example, workers have erected dozens of trailers with one exit point along a country road. Evacuation -- not to mention return -- is a logistical nightmare.

The storm could worsen the spill's environmental impact. The oil slick has shifted direction and is headed to the Mississippi Sound along with the Breton National Wildlife Refuge and the Chandeleur Islands.

"We're very concerned about that," Allen said. "Any kind of heavy storm could push oil further into the marshes."

The National Weather Service issued a coastal flood watch Monday for southeast Louisiana that will last through Wednesday, with tides up to two to three feet above normal.

Meanwhile, the Mississippi River is dumping plumes of the murky silt that forms the basis of southern Louisiana soil into the gulf, fooling spotters conducting daily flights over the oil spill. Scott Linsky, deputy incident commander for the response team near Houma, said one flight circled a silt deposit for 15 minutes and had to deploy a boat to test the area before determining it was not oil.

But Helton said Mother Nature has also lent a hand to the response teams: Although the heat can be stifling, it helps degrade the oil on the surface of the water. Also, there is plenty of daylight for crews to work, unlike during the Exxon Valdez spill in Alaska, when the sun was out for only a few hours a day.

Eilperin reported from Washington. Staff writer Joel Achenbach contributed to this report from Houston.

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