Rough seas and high winds from Hurricane Alex, churning in the Gulf of Mexico far west of the Deepwater Horizon oil spill, forced the suspension Tuesday of skimming and booming operations off the coasts of Louisiana, Alabama and Florida, a BP spokesman said.
Inclement weather did not affect operations at the site of the well head, about 41 miles off the Louisiana coast, where large ships are capturing oil from the ruptured pipe and drilling relief wells that offer the best chance to seal the undersea gusher.
But smaller ships, or so-called vessels of opportunity — contracted by BP to skim oily water, lay boom and transport personnel — were idled for the day, said Bryan Ferguson, a BP representative manning the Unified Command station in New Orleans.
“When seas get above two to three feet, it becomes a challenge for skimming and bong,” Ferguson said, noting that about 2,800 vessels of opportunity were currently contracted for the spill response.
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The National Weather Service reported seas as high as 12 feet in parts of the Gulf.
Vice President Joe Biden began a tour of the region Tuesday, meeting with national and local response teams and residents affected by the spill.
As the vice president toured New Orleans, and later Pensacola, officials at the Florida Peninsula Command Post in Miami said they are prepared to respond should oil reach the state’s southern shores — a risk that appears distant for now.
Oil from the broken undersea well is now 600 miles from the Florida Keys, and more than 100 miles from Panama City, according to members of the command post, which was established three weeks ago and houses representatives of BP, the U.S. Coast Guard, the Department of Interior and the Florida Fish & Wildlife Conservation Commission.
“We’re in a pretty safe place along the Florida peninsula,” said NOAA scientist Dr. Eric Stabenau. “The projections are for the oil to go even further away from Florida’’ because of winds from Alex.