US officials anxiously eyed bad weather near the Gulf of Mexico Wednesday which may delay efforts to plug the broken BP well, just as the endgame approaches in the three-month oil spill.
US and BP officials were poring over weather data as the National Hurricane Center downgraded an earlier forecast saying there was now a 50 percent chance of the bad weather “becoming a tropical cyclone in the next 48 hours.”
Depending on how the system develops, officials may have to issue evacuation orders for hundreds of support ships and engineers trying to complete a relief well being drilled deep under the seabed.
“If we have to evacuate the area… we could be looking at 10 to 14 day gaps in our lines of operation,” warned retired Coast Guard Admiral Thad Allen, who is in charge of the US government response to the Gulf disaster.
Winds whipping up four to six feet (one to two meter) waves and driving rains had already prompted warnings Wednesday about the conditions out at sea, forcing back to port some of the smaller vessels deployed for the clean-up.
Any storm would be a frustrating setback as the British energy giant may be within days of permanently plugging the well, which began leaking in April after an explosion on a BP-leased rig.
Allen said the final pieces of casing needed to be placed on the relief well to protect it before a so-called “static kill” could begin as soon as this weekend, providing the weather holds.
This operation would see BP try to drown the oil flow by pumping in mud and cement via the giant 30-foot (10-meter) cap which has sealed the leaking well and prevented any oil from streaming into the Gulf for almost a week.
Officials say the relief well is still seen as the ultimate solution and will hopefully intercept the damaged well around July 29 allowing it to be cemented over once and for all by mid-August.
But residents warned that efforts to choke off the well may be too late for the delicate marshes and wetlands of Louisiana, with hundreds of miles of coastline in five Gulf states already fouled.
“There is a definite sense of doom here. Everyone seems just defeated. Every day they are being told about oiled marshes, where they grew up,” said Jessica Lass, spokeswoman for the Natural Resources Defense Council, which has set up a center in the small town of Buras.
“This is their livelihood, because it’s not like the shrimp are going to come back this year. Knowing that your source of income could potentially be permanently gone, what are you supposed to do?”
A vast swath of the Gulf has been closed for commercial and sport fishing, a key economic lifeline for this impoverished area.
“It’s the uncertainty of what’s going to happen, creating this huge growth in stress levels here. People don’t know what they are going to do, where to go,” spokeswoman Lisa Becnel from volunteer group C.A.R.E told AFP.
“Unlike a hurricane, which you can see coming, this is slow and they don’t know what to expect.”
BP has already spent close to four billion dollars on clean-up costs and compensation claims and has promised to set up a 20-billion-dollar fund to pay victims of the disaster along the US Gulf Coast.
In a sign of some good news, Allen said hundreds of boats deployed to skim oil from the Gulf surface were having trouble finding any.
The boats are “really having to search for the oil in some cases” around the area of the capped well, he said.
According to official US government figures, more than 270,000 barrels of oil (11.3 million gallons) have been burned in controlled operations since the start of the spill in April.
That is more than all the crude dumped into the seas off Alaska in the Exxon Valdez disaster in 1989 — which was previously the nation’s worst oil spill.
The US government has also said that some 34.6 million gallons of oil water had been recovered from the Gulf since the BP-leased Deepwater Horizon exploded on April 20, killing 11 workers, before sinking two days later.
It is not known exactly how much oil has leaked into the sea, but if an upper estimate of over four million barrels is confirmed, the disaster would be the biggest accidental oil spill ever.