x Abu Dhabi, UAEMonday 22 January 2018

Key ships ordered to leave spill site before storm

Engineers are confident the seal on the leaking Gulf of Mexico oil well in the US can hold as ships are evacuated because of the approaching Tropical Storm Bonnie.

One of the worries about the cap that has mostly contained the Gulf oil well was that it would have to be reopened and left gushing if a major storm system came through. Now engineers are confident enough in the strength of the cap that they decided yesterday to leave it sealed while most of the ships on the surface were ordered to evacuate ahead of the approaching Tropical Storm Bonnie. The storm, which blossomed over the Bahamas and was to enter the Gulf of Mexico by the weekend, could delay by another 12 days the push to plug the broken well for good using mud and cement, retired Coast Guard Admiral Thad Allen and BP officials conceded. Even if it's not a direct hit, the rough weather will push back efforts to kill the well by at least a week.

"While this is not a hurricane, it's a storm that will have probably some significant impacts, we're making appropriate cautions," Mr Allen said in Mobile, Alabama. The delay would be worse if BP had to fully open the cap while the ships closely monitoring the well head left. More oil would have been allowed to spew into the Gulf until they returned. A week of steady measurements through cameras and other devices convinced Allen they don't need to pen vents to relieve pressure on the cap, which engineers had worried might contribute to leaks underground and an even bigger blowout. The cap was attached a week ago, and only minor leaks have been detected.

Allen said earlier in the day that evacuating the vessels could leave the well head unmonitored for up to a few days. He said he ordered BP to make sure that the ships carrying the robotic submarines watching the well are the last to leave and the first to return. Allen issued the order Thursday night to begin moving dozens of vessels from the spill site, including the rig that's drilling the relief tunnel engineers will use to permanently throttle the free-flowing crude near the bottom of the well. Some vessels could stay on site, he said.

"While these actions may delay the effort to kill the well for several days, the safety of the individuals at the well site is our highest concern," he said in a statement. It was unclear Thursday night whether some of the vessels would go back to port or head further south in the Gulf out of the path of the storm and await orders once the storm passes. The Coast Guard cutter Decisive, the hurricane guard for the vessels at the spill site, was awaiting instructions. In an evacuation, the Decisive is the last vessel to leave the area.

Bonnie caused flooding in Puerto Rico, the Dominican Republic and Haiti before reaching tropical storm strength later on Thursday, and Mr Allen said crews expected sustained wind above 63 kilometres per hour at the spill site by early Saturday. Seas already were choppy in the Gulf, with waves up to 1.5 metres rocking boats as crews prepared to leave, and more of the smaller boats involved in the coastal cleanup were called into port, Coast Guard Rear Admiral Paul Zukunft said.

Louisiana Governer Bobby Jindal said he expects local leaders in coastal parishes to call for evacuation of low-lying areas as early as Friday morning. At the spill site, the water no longer looks thick with gooey tar. But the oil is still there beneath the surface, staining the hull of cutters motoring around in it. * AP