Allan: Storm Must Be Upgraded to Evacuate Spill Site

HOUSTON (Dow Jones Newswires), July 22, 2010

If a tropical depression continues to head for the Gulf of Mexico and gains strength Thursday night, then the U.S. government may order an evacuation of drill ships and other vessels working at the site of the BP broken well, the federal response commander said.

If workers flee the site, the spill response could be delayed by 10 to 14 days, retired Coast Guard Adm. Thad Allen said. A decision about the evacuation could be made about 8 p.m. local time, Allen said at a teleconference from Mobile, Ala.

However, despite the storm, government and company officials have decided that the well's cap will stay in place even though there will be no one near to monitor it, Allen said.

"We are prepared to leave the well unattended for this particular event," Allen said. The cap was put on top of the well last week and has been keeping up to 60,000 barrels of oil a day from flowing into the gulf.

The storm, currently dubbed Tropical Depression 3, would have to rise to a level of a tropical storm, meaning its winds would have to increase to 39 miles per hour, in order to provoke an evacuation, Allen said. The National Hurricane Center shows the storm tracking toward the oil spill site off the coast of Louisiana. Gale force winds could reach the site by Saturday morning, Allen said.

The vessel drilling the relief well that is closest to completion would have to leave first, Allen said. BP is drilling two relief wells and one has been on track to finish by mid-August. Its completion is heralded as the ultimate way to plug the well.

In addition to the evacuation of vessels near the spill site, equipment closer to shore will be moved.

U.S. Coast Guard Rear Adm. Paul Zukunft, the on-scene coordinator for the oil spill response, told local officials in a letter released Thursday that there are concerns about the effect of a storm surge on the thousands of feet of oil-containment boom placed along the Gulf's shores.

During two recent storm surges, tens of thousands of feet of boom were washed onto the shoreline and marshes of the area, causing damage to the environment, the letter said. The Coast Guard has set up staging areas in four states that rest on high ground to help deal with the problem as the storm approaches, the letter said.

Richard Knabb, the tropical weather expert at the Weather Channel, said Thursday that the tropical depression is unlikely to form into a hurricane but would still push sea water, which could be mixed with oil and dispersant, onto land in Louisiana, Mississippi and Alabama.

"Some places would get onshore flow, no matter what strength [of storm]," Knabb said.

However, the government announced Thursday that it had reopened one-third of the Gulf area that had been closed to fishing as a result of the spill.

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