First Atlantic storm of season has oil-hit Gulf on edge

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Pastor Dale Morgan

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Jun 27, 2010, 6:20:45 PM6/27/10
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First Atlantic storm of season has oil-hit Gulf on edge

[First Atlantic storm of season has oil-hit Gulf on edge] First Atlantic storm of season has oil-hit Gulf on edge

NEW ORLEANS, Louisiana (AFP) - – The first major storm of the Atlantic season had officials worrying Sunday about the potential threat to efforts to contain and halt the Gulf of Mexico oil spill.

Tropical Depression Alex was expected to gain punch later Sunday as it moves into the southwestern Gulf of Mexico after barrelling across the Yucatan peninsula, the US National Hurricane Center said.

On its current path, the storm is projected to make landfall in Mexico later this week, with most of its force avoiding the oil spill area in the northeastern Gulf off the Louisiana coast.

However experts warned that strong swells and winds could reach the slick and disrupt containment and cleanup, as officials readied ships and equipment at the main containment site in the Gulf for a direct storm hit.

Such an impact "would be the first time and there is no playbook," US Coast Guard Admiral Thad Allen warned Saturday, insisting there was "an extraordinary amount of planning" for that scenario.

Along with preparations for a full evacuation of the site, to get the ships siphoning the oil quickly back to shore, BP has installed the first flexible riser pipe that will remain connected to the ruptured BP well on the sea floor.

The free standing pipe makes it easier to reconnect with the siphoning ships on the surface, upon their return after a hurricane, and will be kept connected to the leaking well when ships leave during a hurricane -- in contrast to the fixed riser pipes that need be disconnected when ships head for shore.

However now Gulf inhabitants fear a major storm could potentially wash the toxic crude much further inland, with oil gushing from the well into the fragile waters for the past 69 days.

"It looks like we're dodging the bullet right now," local environmentalist Aaron Viles told AFP Sunday, but noted that there were "six to 10 more bullets in the chamber," referring to what said is projected to be a "hyperactive" hurricane season in 2010.

That "sends a chill down the spine of any resident on the Gulf in any year," said Viles, campaign director for the Gulf Restoration Network.

President Barack Obama's pointman on the disaster has cautioned that rough weather could set back oil recovery operations for up to two weeks.

Such a stoppage would exacerbate the spill that has defiled the Gulf Coast's once pristine shorelines, killed wildlife and put a big dent in the region's multi-billion-dollar fishing industry.

It would also mean the estimated 30,000 to 65,000 barrels of oil gushing daily from a ruptured wellhead down on the seafloor would be billowing crude and gas unchecked for days.

An estimated 80 million to 150 million gallons have poured into the Gulf since the BP-leased Deepwater Horizon rig exploded on April 20, killing 11 workers.

Allen said vessels recuperating some of the oil and gas would need up to five days to evacuate the site if weather conditions were deemed dire enough.

BP said it recovered 24,550 barrels of oil on Friday, a 3.5-percent increase from its Thursday total, and collected approximately 413,000 barrels since May.

Still, hundreds of demonstrators came to Manatee County, Florida, beaches over the weekend to protest offshore oil drilling and support clean energy strategies advocated by President Obama.

BP's shares have hit a 13-year low in London trading after BP ramped up the costs of the spill so far to 2.35 billion dollars. The company's share values have been cut by more than half since the disaster that unleashed the worst oil spill in US history.

The British energy giant said its plans to drill through four kilometers of rock were on track. No permanent solution to the spill is expected before two relief wells are due to be completed in August.

Heavy drilling fluids would then be pumped into the existing well to drown the oil flow, allowing it to be plugged for good with cement.

Vice President Joe Biden heads to the region on Tuesday and is due to visit the New Orleans command center before traveling to the Florida panhandle.

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