Storm compounds oil spill along US Gulf Coast

The first storm of a hurricane season expected to be one of the heaviest in years made its mark on the Gulf of Mexico oil spill, casting more crude into beaches and marshes while leaving BP unlikely to resume cleanup efforts for a fourth day.

BP and US Coast Guard officials said they would probably need to wait until Saturday to put most of their spill-response teams back to work on the water, skimming oil, spraying dispersants, rescuing wildlife and burning petroleum at sea.

As Hurricane Alex weakened on Thursday into a tropical storm over Mexico—far from the epicentre of the worst offshore spill in US history—authorities and residents along the US Gulf Coast faced a sudden surge in oil contamination of their shores.

Robert Dudley, chief of BP’s Gulf Coast restoration efforts, said high seas and winds kicked up by Alex were propelling the landward advance of the far-flung oil slick.

“It has brought in oil, unfortunately, from the panhandle of Florida to Louisiana, right now, at a higher rate than it has been over the last few days,” he said of the storm’s effect in a live PBS online interview on Thursday.

Like Dudley, Coast Guard commander Charles Diorio said he doubted sea conditions would be calm enough to resume full-scale clean-up and containment efforts on Friday.

“Operations will likely be curtailed,” Diorio told reporters. “We expect the seas to start to calm down as we get into Friday and further into the weekend.”

Those operations, involving nearly 43 000 personnel and more than 7 000 vessels, were halted on Tuesday as weather conditions worsened with the approach of Alex, the first named storm of the 2010 Atlantic hurricane season.

Meteorologists have warned that this season, which began June 1, is likely to be one of the most intense in years, with as many as five major hurricanes expected to materialise.

Any of one of them could seriously compound an environmental and economic disaster unleashed by the April 20 explosion that demolished the Deepwater Horizon drilling rig off Louisiana’s coast and killed 11 crew members.

Millions of barrels of crude oil have gushed nonstop from the floor of the Gulf since then, bringing much of the region’s fishing industry to a halt, strangling its tourist trade, soiling its beaches and killing off wildlife.

A hoped-for halt to the flow of escaping oil is still weeks away, and BP’s financial picture has taken a tremendous beating as the crisis wears on.

Shares stabilising
The company’s market capitalisation has shrunk by about $100-billion and its shares have lost more than half their value since the spill began. But shares have shown signs of stabilising, closing nearly 2% higher in New York on Thursday.

The White House, meanwhile, is expected to release details of a revised moratorium on deep-water drilling in the next few days.
A federal court order last week blocked the government’s initial ban on drilling exploratory and development wells in waters more than 152m deep, and a revised plan could still face legal challenges.

Rough weather spawned by Alex has delayed plans by BP to expand the volume of oil being siphoned from its ruptured wellhead on the Gulf floor, but the drilling of two relief wells aimed at plugging the leak by the middle of next month continued.

Government officials estimate 35 000 barrels (5,56-million litres) to 60 000 barrels (9,5-million litres) of oil pour from the undersea geyser daily.

BP’s current oil-funneling systems, which continued to function through the storm, can handle up to 28 000 barrels daily, and its planned addition could raise that to 53 000.

The storm surge from Alex also pushed more of the oil slick toward the north-west, in the direction of Mississippi and Louisiana, after a week in which the slick had crept mainly toward the north-east, washing up on Florida Panhandle beaches.

Mississippi officials on Thursday closed down the last open portion of that state’s territorial marine waters to all commercial and recreational fishing, citing an increase in the amount of oil driven ashore by the storm.

In a development BP hopes will enhance its oil-collection efforts at sea, a supertanker converted to operate as a giant oil skimmer will be given a test run on the Gulf on Saturday.

The 335m-long vessel, owned by TMT shipping of Taiwan and dubbed the A Whale, can collect 500 000 barrels per day of contaminated water, spill response officials said. - Reuters

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