PENSACOLA — Federal and state oil-cleanup workers began battening down across the Gulf of Mexico for Tropical Storm Bonnie, pulling out protective booms and calling vessels back to port from anti-contamination efforts in the Deepwater Horizon disaster.
On Thursday night, federal officials ordered the evacuation of ships at the site of the blown-out well.
But officials have decided to keep intact the cap that plugged the well last week — even in the event of an evacuation. Experts say there is no churn from a tropical storm at 5,000 feet below the surface.
“The protection of the equipment and crew is paramount to ensure maximum ability to respond to any new challenges a storm may pose to the enormous mission,” said the federal coordinator, Coast Guard Rear Adm. Paul Zukunft.
South Florida could start feeling the effects of Tropical Storm Bonnie today.
Manatee County can expect breezier conditions by mid-afternoon today through this evening, along with an increased chance of scattered thundershowers, said Tyler Fleming, meteorologist at the National Weather Service in Ruskin.
As of 8 p.m. Wednesday, the storm was 385 miles east-southeast of Key West, packing winds of 40 mph and moving northwest with a forward speed of 14 mph.
The Gulf oil region could be affected by the weekend. Zukunft said the storm’s impact would depend on both its power and path. So far, flooding has been reported in Puerto Rico, Haiti and the Dominican Republic.
Keeping ahead of the storm, federal authorities ordered workers to start moving surplus response equipment and vessels to inland staging areas, according to a government statement.
Approximately 43,100 people, more than 6,470 vessels and dozens of aircraft have been engaged in the response.
Hurricane Alex, which passed far to the south of the spill site, kicked up 10-foot seas and strong winds that pushed slicks inland toward Louisiana’s islands and sensitive delta estuary.
This storm system could do the same, with surge and winds pushing oil into fragile and low-lying coastal wetlands. But Zukunft said in an interview that it could also take a path where the counterclockwise winds would push oil away from the marsh — potentially diluting impacts by further dispersing the oil.
“That’s one scenario,” he said. “There are too many uncertainties with the system.”
Meanwhile, the looming storm put a temporary halt to most coastal cleanup efforts. Zukunft ordered crews to remove heavy oil-blocking booms from low-lying areas and to stockpile them on high ground so they wouldn’t be washed away.
Hired captains were also repositioning and re-anchoring booms already in place.
Booms do little to stop oil in rough water, he said, and could do more harm than good if they get driven into fragile wetlands.
“We have less oil in the Gulf of Mexico, but I still have 3.5 million feet of boom out there,” he said. “Rather than letting Mother Nature drive me into a corner, I’m getting ahead of it.”
Additionally, Florida was removing state boom from marsh areas where oil was not threatening the shore to prevent damage from the heavy equipment getting pushed into the delicate areas by strong winds and high tides.
“We are making preparations in case the weather would force us to move the drilling rigs,” said the National Incident Commander, retired Adm. Thad Allen.
Allen made the call to keep the cap in place a week after BP managed to finally seal the well with what was originally intended to be a temporary cap.
“The decision has been made to leave the cap on,” he said, even though an evacuation of the area risked leaving the well unmonitored for several days.
Jerry Galt, a physical oceanographer with NOAA’s spill response group in Seattle, said a tropical storm, or even a hurricane, would have little effect on the seafloor and the tenuously capped well some 5,000 feet down in the Gulf.
“You’d hardly notice it,” he said. “You might get a slight variation in the currents but that would be very transitory. It’s pretty much not connected.”
On the surface it’s obviously a different matter, and that’s why the federal response said in a statement it was already protecting “people, boats, boom and other equipment while planning for the safe and speedy resumption of oil spill recovery after a storm.”
Still, Galt said, oil driven deep inland can settle into a marsh, usually collecting around natural run-out areas and edges. He found pockets of it years after a spill in France.
“The impact on the community was very mixed,” he said.
The Florida Department of Environmental Protection said it was removing nearly 316,261 feet of state-deployed boom in advance of the storm.
“During a tropical storm, boom can cause additional damage to the natural resources that we are trying to protect from oil spill impacts,” said Michael Sole, secretary of the Florida Department of Environmental Protection.
Ron Kendall, director of the Institute of Environmental and Human Health at Texas Tech University, said it wouldn’t take hurricane force winds to create a potentially toxic tide.
“Look what happened with Alex,” he said. “It shoved oil all the way to Lake Ponchartrain.”
Though the leak stopped a week ago, a vast amount of oil remains in the Gulf, he said, and much of it was the consistency of chocolate mousse — material that could suffocate plants or tiny wetlands denizens.