Hurricane Alex may have steered clear of the oil spill, but rough seas and strong winds in the Gulf of Mexico continued to hamper cleanup efforts Wednesday and will delay the installation of a system that could double the amount of crude collected each day from BP’s Macondo well.
The conditions forced the Coast Guard and BP to halt all surface skimming, controlled burns of oil on the water and aerial spraying of oil-dispersing chemicals on the massive slick, and damaged large sections of oil containment boom protecting coastlines, Coast Guard Rear Adm. Paul Zukunft said.
The suspension in the cleanup, which could last through Friday, raises the threat of more oil coming ashore, he said. But the cleanup will resume immediately once weather permits, he said.
Choppy seas also stymied efforts to connect a third oil-collecting vessel to the gushing well. Teams had hoped to have the vessel called the Helix Producer in place by Wednesday, boosting current collection capacity of 25,000 barrels per day on two ships to a combined 53,000 barrels per day. But the new target day for hookup is next Wednesday, Zukunft said. Scientists now estimate the well is spewing up to 60,000 barrels per day — about 2.5 million gallons.
“We’ve been held hostage by the oil,” Zukunft said in a media briefing Wednesday, “and now the weather is holding us hostage.”
In recent days, oil companies including Shell, ConocoPhillips, Exxon Mobil Corp. and others have evacuated workers from offshore facilities in the western and central Gulf as Alex strengthened into a hurricane and headed for the Texas-Mexico border.
But the storm has not forced BP to abandon a critical drilling relief well drilling operation at Macondo – in mile-deep waters about 40 miles off the Louisiana coast. A relief well intercepting the Macondo and plugging it is the best hope for permanently sealing the gushing well.
On Wednesday, the first of two relief wells was within 16 feet of the Macondo well bore, which extends more than two miles beneath the floor of the Gulf. Crews will continue over the next several weeks to send electronic sensors into the well to find a good strike point for intercepting Macondo and plugging it with heavy mud and cement, said Coast Guard Adm. Thad Allen, leader of the federal spill team.
A backup relief well has reached a depth of about 7,000 feet below the seabed.
Allen also defended federal response efforts to the spill amid mounting criticism of the Coast Guard and BP for delays in deploying skimming vessels, containment boom and other resources needed to fight the worst oil spill in U.S. history.
No Jones Act issues
He dismissed rumors that federal spill coordinators have turned away foreign vessels willing to aid in the cleanup due to the Jones Act, a protectionist 1920 law that prohibits foreign-flagged boats and crews from doing port-to-port duty within three miles of the US coast.
“We at no time, in the course of this response, have been inhibited by anything having to do with what we would call Jones Act or Jones Act waivers,” he said. “All the vessels that are operating outside of three miles do not require Jones Act waivers, and we’ve been able to use foreign-flagged vessels out there as we have needed.”
Offers of assistance have poured in from 44 countries and four international associations, and federal spill teams have accepted some and are still going through others, Allen said.
He also said a new Coast Guard and Environmental Protection Agency rule put into effect Wednesday will loosen requirements for accessing Navy skimmers and other equipment from around the U.S. that could be used in the response effort.
He said that rule, along with procurement of skimmers several weeks ago, has allowed the response team to triple the number of skimmers on the water in the past two weeks. About 500 skimmers now are involved in the operation.
Separately, Allen said his team had received reports of tar balls washing ashore in Texas around Galveston and South Padre Island, and that the material will be tested to determine if it came from the Macondo spill.More »