Special Reports

Spill cleanup resumes as Bonnie founders

GRAND ISLE, La. — As soon as a weakened Tropical Depression Bonnie breezed past the northern Gulf on Saturday afternoon, BP wasted no time redeploying drilling rigs back to finish the job of permanently sealing the damaged oil well.

“We’ve been in need of some good news,” said Jeff Hamilton, 50, of New Orleans, as he walked along Grand Isle beach Saturday drinking a can of Bud Light. “No more delays.”

Bonnie wreaked much less havoc than forecasters expected, weakening from a tropical storm over South Florida to not much more than a thunderstorm with sustained winds of less than 25 mph by the time it passed the oil spill site Saturday afternoon.

Now the rush is on to permanently plug the well site before another storm forms during this hurricane season, which meteorologists predicted would be busier than normal.

“We’re going to play a cat-and-mouse game for the remainder of the hurricane season,” said retired Coast Guard Adm. Thad Allen, who is leading the government’s spill response.

While Bonnie turned out to be a dud of a storm, just the threat of tropical winds of 38 mph or greater and high seas led to evacuations of 10 to 15 ships working on the two relief wells and the disassembly of a mile-long steel riser pipe that connects to the primary well.

The result: about a seven- to nine-day delay in finishing the ultimate fix, pushing back the estimated completion date of mid-August, Allen said at a press briefing Saturday.

Any delay is not good news for officials and coastal residents desperate to finally resolve the country’s biggest environmental disaster. It’s been more than three months since the April 20 explosion aboard the BP-leased Deepwater Horizon oil platform, which killed 11 workers and has decimated the region’s economy.

Bonnie did have a bright side. The depression’s wave action of less than six feet in the northern Gulf will churn the surface oil slicks, spreading them out and breaking up tar patties into smaller tar balls for quicker natural biodegradation, said Jane Lubchenco, administrator of the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration.

The size of the surface oil already had been greatly reduced by skimming and burning since the capping of the damaged oil well more than a week ago, preventing the daily spewing of up to 50,000 barrels of oil into the water.

The storm was too weak to churn up any oil deep under the sea, Lubchenco added. But the depression could drive some weathered oil into marshes and bayous and onto beaches. Its counter-clockwise rotation also could move some oil away from the coastlines.

“The bottom line: It’s better than it might have been,” Lubchenco said.

No oil leaked from the Deepwater Horizon site during the storm, Allen said. The tight-fitting containment cap that has kept oil from leaking remained in place. With Bonnie bearing down Friday, Incident Command and BP decided to leave two vessels with skeleton staffs at the site. They monitored the cap using video imaging and at least one underwater robot. Seismic readings were stopped during the storm, Allen said.

Development Driller III, which is working on the primary relief well, was expected to be back at the well site by today or early Monday morning. Some smaller support vessels took safe harbor up the Mississippi River and may take longer to return to the site of the blowout.

Workers spent Thursday and Friday disassembling nearly a mile of steel pipe that goes down to the sea floor in 40- to 50-foot sections. The crew put them onto the ship’s deck, a safety measure ahead of the storm.

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