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Oil spill drill ships evacuating Gulf well site

Oil recovery workers at the Deepwater Horizon site were pulling up pipes to head to safe waters Friday -- out of the way of Tropical Storm Bonnie -- for what the chief of the Gulf of Mexico recovery effort cast as a best-case scenario halt to operations for 48 hours.

Along Florida's Panhandle, meantime, workers spent a second day pulling orange and yellow boom out of the water while private boaters hired by BP to help clean up the spill sailed back to port.

``It will be up to the masters to pick the best location . . . to ride out the storm,'' retired Coast Guard Adm. Thad Allen told reporters in a late morning teleconference from New Orleans. ``This is not a hurricane. This is a tropical storm right now.''

As he spoke, Bonnie's squalls lashed South Florida on her way west to complicate recovery efforts from the worst oil spill in U.S. history.

Clean-up workers already began pulling in protective boom on Thursday and by evening small skimmer vessels and other ships fighting the contamination at sea were headed to port.

Friday, Panhandle workers focused on areas close to saltwater marshes and navigable waterways and had by midday already pulled 180,000 feet of some 790,000 feet of boom from the shoreline that stretched from Escambia to Franklin counties.

``If left in the water, the boom could be destroyed or pushed into the marshes and cause more environmental damage,'' said U.S. Coast Guard Cmdr. Joe Boudrow, deputy incident commander for the Florida Panhandle.

Approximately 43,100 people, more than 6,470 vessels and dozens of aircraft have been engaged in the response. Many were called back to shore.

In the Gulf, BP oil managers decided a day earlier to leave the oil well capped rather than use valves to ease any pressure that might build. Allen expressed confidence in the week-old ``cap and stack'' containment seal that has stopped crude from gushing into the Gulf for more than a week.

Instead, Allen said, Development Drillers No. 2 and 3 were disconnecting from the so-called lower marine riser package Friday morning to head for calmer seas.

The drill ships would be gone for at least 48 hours, he said. Once they return, he added, it could take another 48 hours to reconnect.

Allen said officials had yet to decide whether workers and vessels operating underwater sensors, robots and monitoring seismic activity at the drill site would also evacuate.

If they do, he said, they would leave behind hydrophones at the well's base to monitor activities.

In addition, he said, ``if we have an integrity problem, we will see it with air surveillance and satellite surveillance,'' meaning if the seals don't hold, authorities would know it once they spotted fresh crude on the surface -- 5,000 feet above the drill site.

It was not known yet whether the storm-whipped seas would help or hurt cleanup efforts.

In one scenario, a storm surge could drive tar patties and other oil waste into Florida Panhandle beaches and fragile Gulf marshland.

In another, storms and choppy seas would beat the waste up on the high seas and, as Boudrow described it, ``accelerate the biodegradation process.''

Still, Boudrow cautioned, the dispersed oil caused by the storm would make it ``more difficult to model where the oil is being transported to,'' and noted there would probably be an increase of air reconnaissance missions following the storm, trying to chart the flow of oil.

Bonnie's approach also likely delayed plans by fishermen to return to Gulf coast waters once closed off for fishing by NOAA and Food and Drug Administration officials.

Thursday night, the two federal agencies reopened nearly a third, or 26,000 square miles, of Gulf Coast waters to fishing, citing, numerous tests conducted on pompano, mahi mahi and grouper caught in the area that yielded no signs of oil or dispersant chemicals.

``It's a great indicator that things are changing in a positive way,'' said Nick Wiley, executive director of the Florida Fish and Wildlife Conservation Commission.

Wiley added that he expected more areas to be reopened off Florida's shores in the next two to three weeks, with a push to open an area of waterways 23 miles off Pensacola.

Daily testing continues on fish, Wiley added.

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