Gathering storm halts BP operation to kill well

By Marc Kaufman
Washington Post Staff Writer
Wednesday, July 21, 2010; 6:11 PM

With weather conditions deteriorating in the eastern Caribbean, BP stopped work Wednesday on efforts to finally kill its blown-out well and installed a plug in the relief well as protection if the seas get rough.

Company senior vice president Kent Wells said that while boats and crew remain at the Macondo site, work on the relief well was stopped in the morning and evolving plans for an additional effort to seal the well from above were put on hold.

"We could have a tropical storm at Macondo," Wells said, "and we have to be able to get out of the way. We have to watch the weather very, very carefully and adjust plans accordingly."

The plug was installed about 300 feet below the sea floor, beneath the blowout preventer of the relief well.

Forecasters predict the storm system will most likely move into the Gulf of Mexico over the weekend, although in a weakened condition. Right now, it has a 50 percent chance of becoming a tropical depression or storm within the next 48 hours. If it does head towards the Gulf Coast, the long-feared possibility arises of increased oil pollution ashore and in the marshes.

The Shell Oil Company announced Wednesday that it was preparing to take all non-essential personnel off its platforms and rigs in the eastern Gulf as a precaution. Spokeswoman Kelly op de Weegh said the move was triggered by the possibility of bad weather rather than any clear threat. BP spokesman Daren Bodo said his company was watching the weather but had not yet decided on any evacuation.

If the weather forces workers to leave the leak site, the final sealing of the well could be delayed 10 to 14 days, National Incident Commander Thad Allen said Wednesday. Since a new containment cap was installed last week, the well has been plugged and the oil and gas geyser controlled. BP officials said they were confident the well as currently configured would hold up during a storm.

Earlier in the day, Allen also said that efforts to collect oil from the water surface appear to be successful.

"We're really having to search for the oil in some cases," he said. "We've had skimmers out there on the wellhead site for a number of days now, as many as 50 a day."

In Washington, the House passed legislation Wednesday by voice vote that would increase funding for research and development of new oil cleanup methods and technologies from $22 million to $48 million.

A second bill promotes research on devices designed to prevent accidents and better shut off wells if they occur.

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