First Big Storm of Season Has Oil-Hit GOM on Edge

NEW ORLEANS (Dow Jones Newswires), June 28, 2010

The first major storm of the Atlantic season was entering the Gulf of Mexico Monday, seeming set to avoid the BP oil spill but leaving residents jittery after causing 10 deaths.

Tropical Storm Alex was expected to gain strength as it moves into the southwestern Gulf after dumping heavy rains across the Yucatan peninsula, having killed at least 10 people in Nicaragua, Guatemala and El Salvador.

On its current path, Alex is projected to make landfall in Mexico later this week, with most of its force avoiding the oil spill area in the northeastern Gulf off the Louisiana coast.

But experts warned that strong swells and winds could reach the slick area and disrupt cleanup efforts.

A major storm could require the ships collecting some of the oil to evacuate - leaving up to 60,000 barrels a day gushing unabated.

Bob Smerbeck, a senior meteorologist at, said one of the worst-case scenarios would have the storm head toward Texas, linger offshore and kick up big swells that could dismantle containment booms and push oil onto land.

"The best-case scenario for the oil cleanup is that this thing heads right into the Mexican coast without waiting," he said. "The worst case is if it goes north--and stalls."

Alex, which already packed sustained winds of 50 miles (85 kilometers) an hour, was also expected to strengthen further. "Alex could become a hurricane later today or on Tuesday," the Miami-based National Hurricane Center said.

An estimated 80 million to 150 million gallons have poured into the Gulf since the BP-leased Deepwater Horizon rig exploded on April 20, killing 11 workers.

One of the four states with shorelines sullied by the oil, Mississippi, reported "significant" oil washed ashore Sunday, with prevailing winds expected to push more oil toward shores at least for the next several days.

The Mississippi governor's office said tides of the weathered brown-orange mess have been found on about two miles (three kilometers) of beaches along the southeastern tip of the state and on some of the barrier islands.

"The shoreline had largely escaped the oil, with the exception of some scattered tar balls. This is our first significant intrusion of oil on the shoreline," Gov. Haley Barbour's press secretary Dan Turner said.

"We've been spared very much up until this point. We are spared no longer."

The news of more oil in Mississippi amplified fears among Gulf inhabitants that a major storm could potentially wash the toxic crude along more of the coast.

"It looks like we're dodging the bullet right now," local environmentalist Aaron Viles said, but noted that there were "six to 10 more bullets in the chamber," referring to what he said is projected to be a "hyperactive" hurricane season in 2010.

That "sends a chill down the spine of any resident on the Gulf in any year," said Viles, campaign director for the Gulf Restoration Network.

U.S. President Barack Obama's pointman on the disaster, Coast Guard Adm. Thad Allen, has cautioned that rough weather could set back oil recovery operations for up to two weeks.

An event like that would exacerbate the spill that has defiled the Gulf Coast's once pristine shorelines, killed wildlife and put a big dent in the region's multi-billion-dollar fishing industry.

It would also mean an estimated 30,000 to 65,000 barrels of oil would gush unchecked every day from the ruptured wellhead on the seafloor.

Along with preparations for a full evacuation of the site, to get the ships siphoning the oil quickly back to shore, BP said it has installed the first flexible riser pipe that will remain connected to the ruptured well.

The free standing pipe makes it easier to reconnect with the siphoning ships on the surface upon their return after a hurricane, and will be kept connected to the leaking well when ships leave during a hurricane--in contrast to the fixed riser pipes that need to be disconnected when ships head for shore.

Allen said vessels recuperating some of the oil and gas would need up to five days to evacuate the site.

The U.K. energy giant said its plans to drill through four kilometers of rock were on track. No permanent solution to the spill is expected before two relief wells are due to be completed in August.

Heavy drilling fluids would then be pumped into the existing well to drown the oil flow, allowing it to be plugged for good with cement.

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