Approaching storms forced crews to suspend drilling the final stretch of a relief well aimed at shooting a permanent underground plug into BP's busted oil well in the Gulf of Mexico, the government's point man for the disaster said Tuesday.
Retired Coast Guard Adm. Thad Allen said the suspension could mean a delay of two or three days in completing the relief well, one of the last steps toward ending any threat from the well that spewed more than 200 million gallons of oil over three months before a temporary cap sealed it in mid-July.
Crews will pop in a temporary plug to keep what they've drilled so far safe, but they won't send workers back to land. They have about 30 feet left to drill. No oil has spilled since the temporary cap was mounted on top of the broken well and closed in mid-July.
The new well is meant to allow BP PLC to pump mud and cement into the broken one from deep underground for a so-called bottom kill, a permanent seal that would complement a mud and cement plug injected into the top of the well last week.
Allen has insisted for days that BP go ahead with the bottom kill, even though the top plug appeared to be holding. On Tuesday, though, he said testing still needs to be done on the well before a final decision is made.
"I'm not sure we know that ... I don't want to prejudge whether we are going to do it or not going to do it. It will be conditions based."
He later assigned a "very low probability" to the bottom kill not being done, but then said: "We will let everybody know" if that changes.
Allen also said officials were removing some boom that had been put out to catch oil in Florida, Alabama and Mississippi. He said the boom will be put it in storage and be available for future use if necessary.
Forecasters at the National Hurricane Center said there was a high chance that thunderstorms off southern Florida could strengthen in the next two days into a tropical disturbance headed over the Gulf.
The man in charge of the drill on the final approach to the busted well is John Wright, who will guide the drill head about the width of a grapefruit more than two miles beneath the seafloor and try to hit a target less than half the size of a dartboard.
"There has always been some drama at the last moment that makes you think you might miss. It comes down to a judgment call," Wright said in an e-mail to The Associated Press.
Wright has a perfect record of 40 wells capped without a miss across the world in four decades of work. But he is still anxious each time he nears the end.
Wright said he is feeling more pressure as the relief well nears its target, but said the plugging of the blown-out well from the top last week has lessened the need to finish quickly.
"Perhaps it is a bit like golf," Wright said. "The more you practice the luckier you get."
With no more oil spewing, federal authorities were set to announce that a stretch of the Gulf off Florida's Panhandle would be reopened for commercial and recreational fishing, a big business for the region.
Dr. Jane Lubchenco, administrator of the National Oceanic Atmospheric Administration, scheduled a Tuesday afternoon news conference at a marina in Panama City Beach to announce the reopening of federal waters off the Panhandle. Details were not immediately available. Large swaths of the Gulf off Lousiana, Mississippi, Alabama and Florida have been closed to fishing since early in the spill.
The spill started with an April 20 explosion that sank the BP-leased drilling rig Deepwater Horizon and killed 11 workers.
More than 300 lawsuits filed in the aftermath against BP and other companies will be handled by a federal judge in New Orleans, a judicial panel said Tuesday.
An order issued Tuesday by the U.S. Judicial Panel on Multidistrict Litigation said 77 cases plus more than 200 potential "tag-along" actions will be transferred to U.S. District Judge Carl Barbier.
The judicial panel's order says the federal court based in New Orleans is the best place for the litigation because southeast Louisiana is the "geographic and psychological 'center of gravity'" for the cases.
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