- Associated Press - Saturday, June 26, 2010

NEW ORLEANS (AP) — The logistics of containing the oil spewing into the Gulf of Mexico are mind-boggling even in ideal conditions. Add a tropical storm like the one swirling in the Caribbean and things get even more complicated.

Any system with winds over 46 mph could force BP to abandon efforts to contain the flow for up to two weeks and delay the drilling of two relief wells that are the best hope of stopping it, Coast Guard Admiral Thad Allen said Saturday, shortly after Alex became the first tropical storm of the Atlantic hurricane season.

Forecasts show Alex churning toward Mexico and missing the northern Gulf Coast and the spill, but officials are watching closely anyway.

“We all know the weather is unpredictable and we could have a sudden, last-minute change,” Allen said.

Emergency plans call for moving workers and equipment five days before gale-force winds are forecast to arrive at the half-square mile containment operation surrounding the blown-out well. Oil has been gushing since the offshore drilling rig Deepwater Horizon exploded 50 miles off the coast of Louisiana on April 20, killing 11 workers.

Nearly 39,000 people and more than 6,000 boats are working there, in other parts of the Gulf and on land to skim and corral the oil, protect hundreds of miles of coastline and clean fouled beaches. All of those efforts would have to be suspended if a storm threatened.

At the well, the two systems that have been capturing anywhere from 840,000 to 1.2 million gallons of oil a day would be unhooked, leaving oil to gush freely into the Gulf again. No one knows exactly how much is flowing, but worst-case estimates indicate it could be as much as 2.5 million gallons a day.

Work would also stop on the two relief wells being drilled to take the pressure off the blown-out well, considered the only permanent solution. The first is on target for completion by mid-August, but there could be a significant delay if people and ships come ashore to ride out a storm.

Despite the setback a suspension would represent, “the safety of life is number one priority,” Allen said.

Out in the Gulf, there is also concern about the thousands of feet of protective boom ringing numerous islands and beachfronts. Winds and waves could hurl the material, much of it soaked with oil, deep into marshes and woodlands.

“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.

Once a storm’s expected direction is determined, barges and crews plan to remove as much boom in its path as possible, said Sam Phillips, solid waste permits administrator with the Louisiana Department of Environmental Quality. The boom would be stored on barges so it could be put back in place quickly.

“Obviously, it wouldn’t withstand a hurricane,” Phillips said.

Workers probably would have enough time to retrieve most of the exposed boom, he said.

“You can move a lot of boom in 48 hours, if that were your sole endeavor,” he said. “Can they get all of it? Probably not.”

Story Continues →