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Jul 21, 2010 1:18 PM by Letitia Walker

Weather Hurting Efforts to Plug Leak

NEW ORLEANS (AP) - Tropical rainstorms moving toward the Gulf of

Mexico Wednesday threatened to shut down undersea efforts to seal

BP's ruptured well, interrupting work just as engineers get close

to plugging the leak with mud and cement.

Retired U.S. Coast Guard Adm. Thad Allen said a weather system

brewing in the Carribean could force crews to abandon their watch

over the experimental cap that's been bottling oil a mile below the

surface of the water for nearly a week.

Scientists have been scrutinizing underwater cameras and data

for days, trying to determine if the cap is displacing pressure and

causing leaks underground. If storms keep them from seeing the cap

and getting those readings - for up to four days, Allen said - BP

could reopen the well to avoid missing signs it is buckling.

"This is necessarily going to be a judgment call," said Allen,

the federal government's point man on the spill who will make the

ultimate decision.

Forecasters say the storm system likely will move into the Gulf

of Mexico over the weekend, although it appears to be weakening.

Right now, it has a 60 percent chance of becoming a tropical

depression or storm within the next 48 hours.

In Florida, crews were removing protective boom intended to

buffer the state's inland waterways in the Panhandle from oil. High

winds and storm surge could carry the boom into sensitive wetlands,

damaging those areas.

Allen said BP and government scientists were meeting to discuss

whether the cap could be monitored from the shore.

It could take several days to evacuate ships from the well site

50 miles off the Louisiana coast, where the BP-leased Deepwater

Horizon rig exploded April 20, killing 11 and touching off one of

America's worst environmental crises.

Allen said an evacuation could delay operations as much as two

weeks before work would resume to kill the well at the bottom.

Shell Oil, the U.S. arm of Royal Dutch Shell PLC, already has

begun evacuating personnel not essential to producing and drilling

on their operations in the Gulf.

BP crews are in the final stages of readying a relief tunnel

before boring into the side of the ruptured well to dump heavy mud

and cement, sealing it for good. BP also may pump mud and cement

from the top, to make efforts at the bottom easier. That procedure,

called a surface kill, would occur before the well is ultimately

plugged from below.

Before talk of nasty weather, BP was inching closer to

completion and had hoped for a permanent plug by early August.

The well has spewed somewhere between 94 million and 184 million

gallons into the Gulf. BP said the cost of dealing with the spill

has reached nearly $4 billion.

The temporary cork in the well has helped cleanup efforts, and

Allen said skimming vessels are starting to have trouble finding

oil to collect. BP has about 1,600 boats operating daily in waters

off Alabama, Florida and Mississippi, 600 fewer than last week,

said Matt Kissinger, director of BP's "vessels of opportunity"

program in the region.

Some boat captains, many earning more through the cleanup than

they typically do from fishing, are worried it's a sign BP is

leaving the Gulf too early.

Shrimper Minh V. Le of Bayou La Batre had both of his boats out

skimming for oil initially, but one has been deactivated.

"A lot of us have put a lot of sweat into the program," he

said. "You've got a 100-degree heat index, and there's a lot of

wear and tear on our boats. If something breaks down it can cost

$30,000. What they're paying isn't a drop in the bucket."

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