A tropical wave that has drenched Puerto Rico, Haiti and the Virgin Islands could -- if it hits the site of the BP oil spill in the Gulf -- delay cleanup and well-closure efforts by as much as two weeks, the federal government said Wednesday.
"This is a significant issue,'' retired Coast Guard Adm. Thad Allen, the federal point person for the cleanup, said. If severe weather arrived, the ships aiding in response efforts would have to be evacuated, Allen said, and ``some of these vessels move very slowly.'' The storm, which forecasters have given a better-than-even chance of building into Tropical Storm Bonnie, is headed in a west-northwest direction -- potentially bringing it to South Florida and, after that, the Gulf of Mexico.
But given the uncertainty of forecasts, there is also a chance the storm heads up the eastern seaboard, sparing both Florida and the Gulf.
BP's oil well has been plugged for close to a week by a containment cap, but that cap's progress is still being monitored day-to-day. The cap's lower-than-expected pressure readings have raised concerns about possible problematic leaks, but so far no significant leaks have been discovered.
Still, leaving the cap unmonitored for three to four days because of a storm evacuation would test scientists' confidence in the cap -- which is meant to be only a temporary stopgap solution until a relief well can be completed. Allen said the question of what to do with the cap during an evacuation is still being examined, but one possibility would be to ease the pressure on the cap by partially opening its vents -- though that would release some hydrocarbons into the environment.
If the storm doesn't arrive, Allen said the current efforts to permanently close the well will continue on schedule -- with a possible full closure as soon as early August. The casing for the closest of two relief wells could be finalized by this weekend. As the cement of that casing dries -- which could take as long as a week -- a ``static kill'' might be used to help seal the damaged well.
The static kill, which BP is still waiting for the federal government to sign off on, would not replace the existing cap but seek to further seal the oil well by pumping heavy mud into it.
The static kill is similar to a ``top kill'' closure method that BP previously -- and unsuccessfully -- attempted. The difference now, according to BP Senior Vice President Kent Wells, is the top kill tried to stop oil that was gushing full blast into the Gulf. This time, with the cap already in place and the flow stopped, there will be no need to pump mud in at high rates and pressures.
Ultimately, BP envisions the static kill working in tandem with the relief well -- speeding up the permanent closure process while also making that closure easier to execute.
Federal responders and BP officials still don't have an agreed-on explanation for why pressure readings from the now-capped oil well are less than what scientists expected: about 6,800 pounds per square inch instead of the desired 8,000 to 9,000 psi.
Lower pressure readings could mean leaks somewhere in the well casing, and worst-case scenarios for such a leak involve oil and gas flowing into the bedrock and mud, perhaps leading to a problematic collapse of the well.
For now, though, even though the pressure readings aren't quite perfect, the federal government continues to extend its approval for the cap -- in limited, 24-hour increments.
Once the well is permanently closed, the massive cleanup of the nation's worst-ever oil spill will continue -- with no clear end in sight. Since the BP-leased Deepwater Horizon rig exploded on April 20, killing 11 people, millions of gallons of crude have spilled into the Gulf, soiling the coastlines of all five Gulf Coast states.
About 87 miles of coastline in the Florida Panhandle has been ``oiled,'' according to Gov. Charlie Crist's office. While the Panhandle will continue to feel the effects of tar balls washing ashore in the coming days, state officials do not expect oil to hit other parts of Florida in the immediate future.
The long-term outlook for where the mammoth slick will spread is difficult to forecast. One thing is certain: The economies of all states in the Gulf stand to suffer, especially tourism-dependent Florida.
A Moody's economic report released this week estimated the BP spill could cost the Gulf Coast region about 17,000 jobs and about $1.2 billion in lost economic growth by year end. The report predicted Louisiana and Florida as the states likely to suffer most -- Louisiana because of its huge fishing and oil-extraction industries, Florida because the state relies on pristine beaches to attract visitors.
Florida has long been the only Gulf state to resist opening its waters to offshore drilling -- yet the state got hit anyway.
Grover Robinson, a commissioner in Escambia County, home to Pensacola, said Florida should get any aid first because it had no role in the catastrophe.
`I know we're all in it together,'' he said. ``But Florida's injuries are greater because we don't do this stuff.''
Information from the Associated Press was included in this report.