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Hurricane Alex hampers gulf skimming operations, officials say

By Felicia Sonmez
Washington Post Staff Writer
Thursday, July 1, 2010; 5:22 PM

Skimming operations in response to the BP oil spill in the Gulf of Mexico have been "significantly hampered" by Hurricane Alex, retired Coast Guard Adm. Thad W. Allen said Thursday.

"In general, we're waiting for the weather to abate so we can move on with recovery operations," Allen said during an appearance at the daily White House news briefing. He said there is no certain date for skimming to resume but that "it will be weather-based."

Alex, which struck northern Mexico on Wednesday, weakened to a tropical storm Thursday but continued to pack a powerful punch, causing severe flooding and paralyzing the Mexican city of Monterrey, news agencies reported. At least two people were reported killed in the flooding, and thousands were forced to flee their homes.

Allen, the official in charge of the federal response to the oil spill, said swells and weather near the site of the damaged oil well are delaying the deployment of a third rig to bring up some of its leaking oil. He said it would take until the middle of next week to hook up the Helix Producer so that it can join two other vessels, the Discoverer Enterprise drill ship and the Q4000 platform, in producing oil from the BP well.

The Helix Producer, which was originally scheduled to start operating by Thursday, will bring production capacity up to 53,000 barrels a day, Allen said. Government experts have estimated the volume of the leaking oil at 30,000 to 60,000 barrels a day.

The first of two relief wells, which offer the best hope for finally stopping the leak, has reached a distance of 11,641 feet below the sea floor and is within about 15 feet of the BP wellbore, Allen said. Plans are to drill down another 700 to 800 feet before intercepting the wellbore and initiating a technique called "bottom kill," in which mud and, eventually, cement are pumped in to plug the well. Officials have said they expect BP to carry out that operation in August.

Asked about a report by Rep. Darrell Issa (R-Calif.) criticizing the administration's spill response, White House Press Secretary Robert Gibbs said many of Issa's claims had already been "debunked." Excerpts of Issa's report were released Thursday morning.

Gibbs also said the Interior Department is expected to release a report on a revised moratorium on deep-water drilling "in the next few days."

Allen defended the transparency of the response effort, saying that the administration has been "pretty upfront" about the numbers it has issued on the spill. He noted that the spill has evolved from a "massive, monolithic oil spill" into patches of oil extending in multiple directions. That has required a change in approach, Allen said.

"The spill has evolved, and we'll evolve with it," Allen said.

Allen retired from the Coast Guard effective Wednesday after 39 years of service and appeared at the White House news briefing in a business suit, a jarring sight for reporters accustomed to seeing him in his Coast Guard uniform. "As you can see, my wife's taken me to a men's store in the last couple of weeks," he said to laughter from the room. He said he made the transition Thursday to senior executive on the staff of Homeland Security Secretary Janet Napolitano and continues to hold the title of national incident commander for the BP oil spill response.

Staff writer William Branigin contributed to this report.

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