BP oil spill: How much has bad weather hurt the cleanup?

A week of high winds and waves has interfered with some efforts to contain and clean up the BP oil spill. But key activities have continued with little interruption from bad weather.

By , Staff writer

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    Smoke rises from the BP oil spill site, as natural gas is burned off, while the drilling of two relief wells continue in the Gulf of Mexico on Sunday.
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For more than a week, high seas in the Gulf of Mexico have confounded some – but not all – of the massive efforts to clean up and contain the BP oil spill.

Beginning June 27 with the approach of a storm that would become hurricane Alex, bad weather has especially hampered skimming operations that use some 500 skimmers and 3,000 “vessels of opportunity” to remove oiled water before it washes ashore. Forecasts call for waves to remain high through the coming week.

But the wind-and-wave action has not halted all response activities put in place since April 20, when an explosion on the Deepwater Horizon rig some 40 miles off the Louisiana coast triggered a blowout at the well. Since then, between 35,000 and 60,000 barrels of oil a day (1.47 million to 2.52 million gallons a day) have been billowing into the Gulf, according to official estimates.

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Here’s a list of the response activities that have continued despite the heavy seas – followed by a list of those that have been discontinued or hampered.

What's still working

Drilling of relief wells. “The drilling of relief wells continues and has not been interrupted by elevated sea states,” according to a briefing from the Deepwater Horizon Incident Joint Information Center late on July 3, the latest report available.

Relief wells offer the best hope for permanently capping the blown-out Macondo well. Two are being drilled simultaneously – one a backup in the event the first well is not successful in stopping the flow of crude into the Gulf. Drilling is still expected to be complete in early to mid-August.

Capture of oil via a containment system at the wellhead. Using a containment dome placed atop the wellhead, BP has been able to siphon some oil to the surface, where it is being collected in a ship or burned off. Though the amount collected this way tapered off for a few days as Alex moved past, as of July 4 the system was again capturing about 25,000 barrels a day.

Shoreline cleanup. Cleanup teams continue to be mobilized as needed when oil washes up on shore. Indeed, the high surf that pounded beaches in recent days revealed contamination that had been buried by sand, as occurred in Grand Isle, La., over the July 4 weekend. In other locations, heavy waves brought a new onslaught of tarballs – and sent cleanup workers out in full force.

Modeling by the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration shows oil moving westward in coming days, with possible onshore deposits stretching from Pensacola Beach, Fla., westward to Louisiana’s Caillou Bay.

What's foiled by the weather

Skimming operations. The US Coast Guard is waiting for winds and waves to subside before sending out a small flotilla of vessels to scoop oil out of waters off Alabama, Mississippi, and Florida.

“They’re docked and ready, but safety is a huge concern for us, especially with the smaller vessels,” Courtnee Ferguson, a spokeswoman for the Joint Information Command in Mobile, Ala., told the Associated Press on Monday.

A Whale's deployment. The “super-skimmer” A Whale, a Taiwanese vessel reportedly able to suck up vast amounts of oil-contaminated seawater and separate the oil from the water, has not been able to show its effectiveness because of heavy seas. Initial test results on its abilities came in Monday as “inconclusive,” meaning the A Whale does not yet have a contract to help with the cleanup.

The shipping firm that owns the vessel, TMT, had hoped to test a system of containment boom that is supposed to channel oily water into the ship’s intake vents, company spokesman Bob Grahtham told AP. Testing will continue.

New oil-collection capacity. Plans to roughly double the amount of oil collected from the wellhead – to about 53,000 barrels of oil a day – have been delayed by the weather. The vessel the Helix Producer is on scene and ready to connect with the leaking well by a flexible hose that has been attached to the blowout preventer on the ocean floor. Originally, officials had hoped to have the Helix Producer in place in late June.

Coast Guard officials told AP Monday that the Helix Producer may be connected to the well and collecting oil by July 7 ... weather permitting.

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