The work to plug BP’s leaky oil well was getting back on track Sunday as the skies cleared and crews raced to plug the gusher before another big storm halts the operation again.
A drill rig was reconnecting to the relief tunnel that will pump in mud and cement to seal the well for good, and drilling could resume in the next few days, BP spokesman Steve Rinehart said Sunday morning.
Crews had to pull nearly a mile of segmented steel pipe out of the water Thursday and Friday after the government’s point man on the spill ordered an evacuation ahead of Tropical Storm Bonnie.
Bonnie fizzled on Louisiana’s coast and the ships returned. But as peak hurricane season approaches, the potential for another storm-related delay is high.
“We’re going to be playing a cat-and-mouse game for the remainder of the hurricane season,” retired Coast Guard Admiral Thad Allen said.
As work resumed, British media was reporting that BP chief executive Tony Hayward was negotiating the terms of his departure ahead of the company’s half-year results announcement Tuesday.
Citing unidentified sources, the BBC and Sunday Telegraph reported detailed talks regarding Hayward’s future took place over the weekend. A formal announcement was expected in the next 24 hours, the BBC reported.
BP spokesman Toby Odone said Sunday that Hayward “remains BP’s chief executive, and he has the confidence of the board and senior management.”
Hayward, who angered Americans by minimizing the spill’s environmental impact and expressing his exasperation by saying “I’d like my life back,” has been under heavy criticism over his gaffe-prone leadership during the spill.
His resignation would come on the heels of one of BP’s biggest successes: A temporary plug in the well has held in oil for nine days. When most of the ships evacuated the Gulf, the cap stayed in place, even when engineers thought they’d lose sight of it during the evacuation. In the end, at least some of the real-time cameras trained on the ruptured well apparently kept rolling.
Crews corked the relief tunnel Wednesday and efforts to solidly seal the well were pushed back by at least a week, Allen said.
Completion now looks possible by mid-August, but Allen said he wouldn’t hesitate to order another evacuation based on forecasts similar to the ones for Bonnie.
“We have no choice but to start well ahead of time if we think the storm track is going to bring gale force winds, which are 39 mph or above, anywhere close to well site,” Allen said.
In the past 10 years, an average of five named storms have hit the Gulf each hurricane season. This year, two have struck already – Bonnie and Hurricane Alex at the end of June, which delayed cleanup of BP’s massive oil spill for a week even though it didn’t get closer than 500 miles from the well.
“Usually you don’t see the first hurricane statistically until Aug. 10,” said Dennis Feltgen, a spokesman for the National Hurricane Center in Miami. “The 2010 hurricane season is running just ahead of a typical pace.”
Hurricane season ends Nov. 30.
Ironically, Bonnie may even have a positive effect. Churning waters could actually help dissipate oil in the water, spreading out the surface slick and breaking up tar balls, said Jane Lubchenco, leader of the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration.
Beaches may look cleaner in some areas as the storm surge pulls oil away, though other areas could see more oil washed ashore.
“I think the bottom line is, it’s better than it might have been,” Lubchenco said.
In the oil-affected hamlet of Grand Isle, La., thousands of people spent a gray Saturday at the beach, listening to music. The Island Aid concert, which included LeAnn Rimes and Three Dog Night, raised money for civic projects on the island.
For the afternoon at least, things were almost back to normal. Young women in bathing suits rode around on golf carts while young men in pickup trucks tooted their horns and shouted.
“This is the way Grand Isle is supposed to be but hasn’t been this year,” said Anne Leblanc of Metairie, La., who said her family has been visiting the island for years. “This is the first we came this year. With the oil spill there hasn’t been a reason to come, no swimming, no fishing.”