Tropical storm holds up BP's repair work on oil well


TROPICAL STORM Bonnie has forced BP to suspend work on its Macondo oil well in the Gulf of Mexico.

Bonnie, the second named storm of the June to November hurricane season, yesterday hit southern Florida with rain and winds of 64 km/h (40mph).

The storm is expected to reach the site of the stricken oil well by late today or tomorrow. The National Hurricane Centre in Miami said winds could reach 80km/h by tomorrow, producing waves of up to 4.6 metres (15 ft). Winds must reach 119km/h to qualify as a hurricane.

The storm will delay for up to two weeks the construction of two relief wells which are intended to definitively end the worst environmental catastrophe in US history by pumping mud and cement into the leaking well.

“We had expected to intersect the well by the end of July,” BP vice-president Kent Wells told journalists late on Thursday. “But with the weather, it may be more like the middle of August.” Anticipating the arrival of the storm, Admiral Thad Allen, the national incident commander for the oil spill, ordered the area to be evacuated on Thursday night.

“While this is not a hurricane, this storm could have some significant impacts,” Mr Allen said. “Due to the risk that Tropical Storm Bonnie poses to the safety of the nearly 2,000 people responding to the BP oil spill at the well site, many of the vessels and rigs will be preparing to move out of harm’s way,” he added.

“This includes the rig drilling the relief well that will ultimately kill the well, as well as other vessels needed for containment.”

Last week, BP finally succeeded in installing a temporary cap on the well, which had spewed oil continuously since the Deepwater Horizon oil rig exploded on April 20th.The cap was still undergoing pressure tests, and there was some doubt about whether it should be allowed to remain in place unmonitored.

Mr Allen announced that “based on the recommendation of Dr Steven Chu, Secretary of Energy, and the science team”, he will allow the cap to remain in place while control ships are evacuated. He said the site would probably be abandoned for only 48 hours. If the cap holds through the storm and until the relief wells are completed, the delay will not make a difference to the total amount of oil spilled.

The storm has forced 15 offshore skimmers to leave the well site, however. Some 1,300 fishing boats and private vessels engaged in skimming and laying booms have also evacuated.

The storm, it is feared, may push oil further into the marsh wetlands on the coast of Louisiana. Last month, petroleum carried by Tropical Storm Alex contaminated areas that had not been reached earlier.

Louisiana governor Bobby Jindal declared a state of emergency before Bonnie entered the Gulf.

After President Obama was criticised for taking his family to Bar Harbor, Maine, last weekend, the White House announced the first family will spend a symbolic weekend on August 14th-15th in Florida in an attempt to encourage tourism to the Gulf. The Obamas will then take a two-week holiday in Martha’s Vineyard, Massachusetts.