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Jun 28, 2010 8:01 PM by Chris Welty

Tropical Storm Could Disrupt Oil Spill Cleanup

NEW ORLEANS (AP) - Tropical Storm Alex steamed across the Gulf
of Mexico on Monday on a path that could keep it away from BP's
busted well but could still stir up heavy winds, rain and choppy
seas that drive the oil deeper inland and bring much of the cleanup
to a standstill.
By midweek, boats skimming the sludge from the water may have to
return to port for their own safety, and the floating
oil-containment booms could be rendered useless by waves slopping
over them and may have to be pulled out of the water.
The upside is that the storm could stay far enough away that BP
will not have to abandon its efforts to capture much of the crude
spewing from the sea floor. Nor is the storm expected to interrupt
BP's drilling of a relief well, considered the best hope of
plugging the leak.
"We are watching very, very closely," said Coast Guard Adm.
Thad Allen, the government's point man on the crisis. "As it
stands right now, absent the intervention of a hurricane, we're
still looking at mid-August" for completing the relief well.
Earlier Monday, a BP executive said the well would be done by early
August.
Still, Alex - expected to reach hurricane force by the time it
hits land near the Mexico-Texas border, possibly Thursday - is
giving new urgency to BP'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. Right now, BP would need five days to pull out if
there is a hurricane. The new system being developed, which uses a
flexible hose, would cut that to two days.
And if there was a hurricane, it could shut down the drilling
operation for up to two weeks, Allen said.
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. If the equipment had to be removed because of a storm,
oil would gush full force into the ocean again.
In other developments, BP said in a filing with the Securities
and Exchange Commission that the catastrophe has cost it $2.65
billion so far. The oil giant has also said it would set up a $20
billion fund to compensate people and businesses for their losses.
BP has lost more than $100 billion in market value since the
deep-water drilling platform it was operating blew up April 20,
killing 11 workers.
The company also strongly denied reports in the Russian media
that the company's CEO, Tony Hayward, is stepping down. Hayward has
made a string of gaffes that have angered politicians and Gulf
Coast residents.
Meanwhile, Alex was swirling through the Gulf with winds of 60
mph. It was expected to become a hurricane Tuesday, and could have
winds as high as 120 mph by Wednesday.
While the storm center wasn't expected to approach the site of
the spill, Stacy Stewart, senior hurricane specialist at the
National Hurricane Center, said Alex's outer winds could push oil
farther inland.
Crews are also expecting up to 12-foot waves at the site of the
gusher 50 miles off Louisiana, Allen said. He said that is not
enough to stop the tanker that is sucking up large quantities of
oil through the cap on the well, or a second vessel that is burning
off hundreds of thousands of gallons at the surface.
What forecasters are most concerned about, said Ed Rappaport,
deputy director of the National Hurricane Center, is the slim
chance that the distant storm could generate winds of 39 mph or so
in the spill area, which would probably mean curtailing the
cleanup.
Crews may have to pick up booms in the storm's path before they
get tossed around.
"What boom they don't pick up - and there's miles and miles of
it, so there's no way they can pick it all up - will end up back in
the marsh," said Ivor van Heerden, former deputy director of
Louisiana State University's Hurricane Center.
At Grand Isle, La., crews already were packing up boom and
moving other supplies and equipment, Coast Guard Cmdr. Joe Higgins
said. He said Alex could send 2 feet to 4 feet of storm surge
there.
"We have had to move a lot of material from low-lying areas,"
he said.
"Our concern now is the safety of the people working on this."
Rough seas would make skimmer vessels less effective and could
put crews at risk.
Pulling boats and crews off the water could cost precious time,
said Nancy Kinner, co-director of the Coastal Response Research
Center at the University of New Hampshire. Equipment has to be
stripped down, packed and protected from the force of the storm,
and then has to be reassembled and deployed again - a task that
takes resources and hours away from cleanup and containment, she
said.
"It not only prevents you from being on the water, it delays
you in how long it takes to get back on the water," Kinner said.
---
Associated Press writers Vladimir Isachenkov and Nataliya
Vasilyeva in Moscow, Harry R. Weber in Houston, Brian Skoloff in
Pensacola, Fla., Michael Kunzelman and John Flesher in New Orleans
and Sofia Mannos in Washington contributed to this report.

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