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Jun 29, 2010 11:02 PM by Chris Welty

Cleanup Ships Idled as Storms Rattle Gulf Region

GRAND ISLE, La. (AP) - The crashing waves and gusting winds
churned up by now Hurricane Alex put the Gulf oil spill largely in
Mother Nature's hands Tuesday. Regardless of whether the storm
makes things worse or even better, it has turned many people
fighting the spill into spectators.
Oil-scooping ships in the Gulf of Mexico steamed to safe refuge
because of the rough seas, which likely will last for days.
Officials scrambled to reposition boom to protect the coast, and
had to remove barges that had been blocking oil from reaching
sensitive wetlands.
Those operations could soon get a boost, as the U.S. accepted
offers of help from 12 countries and international organizations.
Japan, for instance, was sending two skimmers and boom.
Alex is projected to stay far from the spill zone and is not
expected to affect recovery efforts at the site of the blown-out
well off the Louisiana coast. But the storm's outer edges
complicated the cleanup as the oil turned whitecaps red.
Waves were as high as 12 feet in parts of the Gulf, according to
the National Weather Service.
U.S. Coast Guard Lt. Dave French said all skimming efforts had
been halted for now off the Louisiana coast. Wayne Hebert, who
helps manage skimming operations for BP PLC, said all nearshore
skimmers were idled off the coasts of Florida, Alabama and
Mississippi.
"Everyone is in because of weather, whether it's thunderstorms
or (high) seas," Hebert said.
French said workers were using the time off the water to
replenish supplies and perform maintenance work.
Alex late Tuesday had maximum sustained winds at 75 mph (120
kph). The National Hurricane Center said the Category 1 storm is
the first June Atlantic hurricane since 1995. It is on track for
the Texas-Mexico border region and expected to make landfall
Wednesday night.
In Grand Isle, dozens of boats, from skiffs up to huge shrimp
boats, were tied up at the docks, rocked by waves even in the
sheltered marina.
"It's really rough out there," said Coast Guardsman Zac
Crawford. "We want the oil cleaned up, but we want people to be
safe. We don't want to lose anyone working on the spill."
On the beach, cleanup workers struggled with wind that blew sand
into their eyes and mouths and humidity that let the sand stick to
their skin.
Farther inland, local officials worried the weather could hamper
efforts to keep the oil out of Lake Pontchartrain, which so far has
not been affected. The brackish body of water, connected to the
Gulf by narrow passes, is a recreational haven for metropolitan New
Orleans.
Authorities worried that underwater currents and an easterly
wind might drive a 250-square-mile oil slick north of the
Chandeleur Islands toward the lake.
"We're very concerned because of the weather," said Suzanne
Parsons, spokeswoman for St. Tammany Parish, which is on the north
side of the lake. "That means they can't get out and start working
it. This may be the first test of our outer lines of defense."
Meanwhile, Jefferson Parish Council member Chris Roberts said
the oil was entering passes Tuesday at Barataria Bay, home to
diverse wildlife. A day earlier, barges that had been placed in the
bay to block the oil were removed because of rough seas. Boom was
being displaced and had to be repositioned, he said in an e-mail.
The loss of skimming work combined with 25 mph gusts driving
water into the coast has left beaches especially vulnerable. In
Alabama, the normally white beaches were streaked with long lines
of oil, and tar balls collected on the sand. One swath of beach 40
feet wide was stained brown and mottled with globs of oil matted
together.
That nasty weather will likely linger in the Gulf through
Thursday, National Weather Service meteorologist Brian LaMarre
said.
Scientists have said the rough seas and winds could actually
help break apart the oil and make it evaporate faster.
The wave action, combined with dispersants sprayed by the Coast
Guard, have helped break a 6-by-30-mile oil patch into smaller
patches, Coast Guard Cmdr. Joe Higgens said.
"It's good news because there is less on the surface," Higgens
said. "It's surface oil that washes up on the beaches."
The storm, however, pushed the oil patch toward Grand Isle and
uninhabited Elmer's Island, dumping tar balls as big as apples on
the beach.
"The sad thing is that it's been about three weeks since we had
any big oil come in here," marine science technician Michael
Malone. "With this weather we lost all the progress we made."
So far, between 137.6 million and 70.8 million gallons of oil
have spewed into the Gulf of Mexico from the broken BP well,
according to government and BP estimates. The higher estimate is
enough oil to fill half of New York's Empire State Building with
oil.
Hurricane warnings were posted for parts of the coast along
Mexico and Texas. Except for the border area itself, though, most
of the warning area is lightly populated.
Still in the Gulf are vessels being used to capture or burn oil
and gas leaking from the well and to drill relief wells that
officials say are the best hope for stopping the leak for good.
In Louisiana, the Coast Guard had to evacuate workers and
equipment from coastal areas in Terrebonne Parish because of tidal
surges that could cause flooding, French said.
All the uncertainty over what Alex and other storms could do to
BP's containment effort gave new urgency to the company's efforts
to make its operations at the well as hurricane-resistant as
possible.
The company said it hopes to install a new oil-capturing system
by next week that would allow BP to disconnect the equipment faster
if a hurricane threatens and hook it back up quickly after the
storm passes.
The containment system now in place is capturing nearly 1
million gallons per day from the well, which is spewing as much as
2.5 million gallons a day, according to the government's worst-case
estimate.
Vice President Joe Biden also visited Gulf Coast officials and
residents Tuesday. In New Orleans, he said federal and state
officials would use a uniform safety standard for seafood coming
out of the Gulf. The goal is to quickly reopen closed fishing
areas.
Biden said he knows that it's "going to be a lean summer and a
lean fall" for the region's fishermen.
"A job is a lot more than about a paycheck," he said. "It's
about dignity. It's about respect. ... In your case, it's a way of
life."

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