National Incident Commander Admiral Thad Allen has decided to move some of the dozens of vessels and oil platforms working at the spill site, 40 miles southeast of Louisiana's Mississippi Delta.
"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 beginning tonight," Allen said.
"This includes the rig drilling the relief well that will ultimately kill the well, as well as other vessels needed for containment," he said. "Some of the vessels may be able to remain on site, but we will err on the side of safety."
The damaged Deepwater Horizon wellhead was capped Thursday, shutting off the flow of oil for the first time since the blowout on April 20. BP has been pressure testing the well's integrity with the cap in place.
"The decision has been made to leave the cap on even if the well is unattended," Allen told reporters this morning.
"As I stated earlier today," he said, "I have directed BP to continue with the well shut in procedure while the work to kill the well is temporarily suspended. I have also directed BP to take measures to ensure the vessels operating the ROVs are the last to leave, and the first to return in order to maximize monitoring of the well. Monitoring of the site during the well integrity test remains one of the government's highest priorities," said the admiral.
"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. We are staging our skimming vessels and other assets in a manner that will allow us to promptly re-start oil mitigation efforts as soon as the storm passes and we can ensure the safety of our personnel," he said.
Projected path of Tropical Storm Bonnie (Map courtesy National Hurricane Center)
Tropical Storm Bonnie is now located 165 miles southeast of Nassau in the Bahamas and about 385 miles east-southeast of Key West, Florida. Wind speeds have been clocked at 40 mph, but the storm is not forecast to reach hurricane wind force of more than 74 mph.
A Tropical Storm Warning is in effect for the Florida East Coast from Golden Beach southward, including the entire Florida Keys and Florida Bay and along the west coast of Florida north to Bonita Beach.
"The projected storm track would take it over the well site itself. Early morning on Saturday, we could have storm force winds at the spill site," Admiral Allen said.
The ship drilling the relief well Development Driller III has already withdrawn the drill bit and installed a device that holds the integrity of the well. Now that he has decided to move the ship off the spill site, Allen says the riser pipe also will be removed, a process that takes 8 to 10 hours. The 5,000 foot pipe must be brought up and detached in sections before the drill ship can leave.
Each of the dozens of ships at the spill site has a different withdrawal schedule, which Allen said he is coordinating by means of a complex spreadsheet.
At the surface, the oil has broken up into hundreds of thousands of small patches and Allen said skimmers are less effective and for the past six days have been finding less oil.
Oil gushed again unchecked for several days earlier this month when BP removed the poorly fitting top hat containment system that had been sending some of the oil to ships at the surface and before they put the current cap on.
"Then we had 40-50 skimmers," said Allen. "Now we're really having to look to find oil. There's a significant reduction of oil on the surface, but there's still oil out there."
"We have hundreds of thousands of patches of oil, some is weathered and can't be burned, and there's no large amounts of oil we can put skimmers on," said Allen. "With weather coming in, emulsification is taking place. Some of this oil could be driven into the marsh areas as it was when [Hurricane] Alex passed by." Hurricane Alex blew through the western Gulf of Mexico at the end of June, making landfall south of Brownsville, Texas.
Federal On Scene Coordinator Rear Adm. Paul Zukunft told reporters today that over the past seven days there has been "no release of new oil" from the damaged wellhead.
One of the 100 daily flights over the BP oil spill site (Photo courtesy U.S. Coast Guard)
More than 100 overflights are conducted over the spill area every day to determine the location of oil concentrations. Zukunft said 15 heavy skimmer vessels collected about 25,000 barrels of oil from over well site last week, but on Wednesday only skimmed a net total of 56 barrels.
"Today there's blue water over the well site," he said. "We don't have any skimming targets of opportunity - oil patches."
The Unified Area Command center is tracking the tropical weather system near the Bahamas very closely and is constantly engaged in discussions with the National Hurricane Center, NOAA and FEMA to ensure the safety of more than 40,000 people currently assisting in the oil spill response and recovery efforts.
To prepare for the possibility of severe weather, Rear Adm. Zukunft has directed the movement of surplus response equipment to inland staging areas.
"We are repositioning assets away from low-lying areas to higher ground staging areas to protect our ability to respond to the dynamic requirements of the incident. The protection of the equipment and crew is paramount to ensure maximum ability to respond to any new challenges a storm may pose to the enormous mission. We are committed to following through with our response. There will be no reductions in effort, urgency or commitment even as we sustain the long-term relief effort," said Zukunft.
"We have sea states of four to six feet out there now," said Zukunft. "This particular weather system has been fickle, but we do not expect a hurricane, this is a tropical storm."
Activities that are underway for storm preparedness include evacuating specialized vessels from the path of any severe weather to prevent damage and ensure that oil recovery operations can resume as soon as possible after a storm.
Boom is being removed from marsh areas where oil is not threatening the shore to prevent damage from the heavy equipment getting pushed into the delicate area by strong winds and high tides.
It is necessary to begin moving equipment to inland staging areas well in advance of a potential storm. Zukunft said the consolidation of boom and other equipment at inland staging areas will in no way hinder current response operations, but will serve to protect as much of this vital resource from the elements as possible through the risky hurricane season.
AccuWeather.com Hurricane Expert, Joe Bastardi says there is still a possibility that the system will turn more to the northwest, over the Florida peninsula. This would mean less impact on the oil spill area and more rain and squalls for central Florida.
On April 20, 2010, a deadly explosion at BP's Deepwater Horizon offshore drilling platform that killed 11 crewmembers started a catastrophic oil leak that has poured millions of barrels of oil into the waters of the Gulf of Mexico.
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