GULF OF MEXICO (AP) - The federal government has ordered dozens of ships to evacuatethe site of BP's broken oil well as Tropical Storm Bonnie sweepstoward the Gulf of Mexico.
The edge of the storm is expected to reach the area by earlySaturday. The cap throttling the flow of oil will remain in place,unwatched for at least a few days.
The government's top official overseeing the spill, Thad Allen,says days of monitoring the temporary plug have convincedscientists it will hold.
THIS IS A BREAKING NEWS UPDATE. Check back soon for furtherinformation. AP's earlier story is below.
ON THE GULF OF MEXICO (AP) — Engineers have grown soconfident in the leaky cap trapping oil inside BP's crippled wellthat they will leave it closed and unwatched if a tropical stormthat formed Thursday forces them to flee, the government's spillchief said.
Barring another setback — and the three-month operationhas been filled with them — crude should never again gushfrom the infamous well.
Tropical Storm Bonnie, which blossomed over the Bahamas and wasto enter the Gulf of Mexico by the weekend, could delay by another12 days the push to plug the broken well for good using mud andcement, retired Coast Guard Adm. Thad Allen and BP officialsconceded. Even if it's not a direct hit, the rough weather willpush back efforts to kill the well by at least a week.
"While this is not a hurricane, it's a storm that will haveprobably some significant impacts, we're taking appropriatecautions," Allen said in Mobile, Ala.
But a week of steady measurements through cameras and otherdevices convinced Allen they don't need to open vents to relievepressure on the cap, which engineers had worried might contributeto leaks underground and an even bigger blowout. The cap wasattached a week ago, and only minor leaks have been detected.
Allen said he would decide Thursday evening whether to order thewithdrawal of the rig that's drilling the relief tunnel engineerswill use to permanently throttle the free-flowing crude near thebottom of the well.
Crews will need up to 12 hours to disconnect the rig from therelief column, and forecasters say the storm could hit the spillsite by Saturday morning.
The storm system caused flooding in Puerto Rico, the DominicanRepublic and Haiti before reaching tropical storm strength laterThursday, and Allen said crews expected sustained wind above 39 mphat the spill site by early Saturday.
Seas already were choppy in the Gulf, with waves up to five feetrocking boats as crews prepared to leave, and more of the smallerboats involved in the coastal cleanup were called into port, CoastGuard Rear Adm. Paul Zukunft said.
Louisiana Gov. Bobby Jindal said he expects local leaders incoastal parishes to call for evacuation of low-lying areas as earlyas Friday morning.
At the spill site, the water no longer looks thick with gooeytar. But the oil is still there beneath the surface, staining thehull of cutters motoring around in it.
One large vessel — the Helix Q4000 — is burning offoil collected from the water, and bright orange flames flared atthe side of the ship.
Scientists say even a severe storm shouldn't affect the wellcap, nearly a mile beneath the ocean surface 40 miles from theLouisiana coast. "Assuming all lines are disconnected from thesurface, there should be no effect on the well head by a passingsurface storm," said Paul Bommer, professor of petroleumengineering at University of Texas at Austin.
Charles Harwell, a BP contractor monitoring the cap, was alsoconfident.
"That cap was specially made, it's on tight, we've been lookingat the progress and it's all good," he said after his ship returnedto Port Fourchon, La.
Before the cap was attached and closed a week ago, the brokenwell spewed 94 million to 184 million gallons into the Gulf afterthe BP-leased Deepwater Horizon rig exploded April 20, killing 11workers.
Work on plugging the well came to a standstill Wednesday, justdays before authorities had hoped to complete the relief shaft.Allen said Thursday he has told BP to go ahead preparing for asecond measure called a static kill that would pump mud and cementinto the well from the top, a move he said would increase therelief well's chances for success. BP will have to get finalapproval from Allen before starting the procedure.
Vice President Joe Biden visited cleanup workers in southernAlabama, and said he was cheered the cap could remain on.
"After the storm's passage we will be right back out there,"Biden said.
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