Cleanup ships idled as storms rattle Gulf region
GRAND ISLE, La. – The crashing waves and gusting winds churned up by Tropical Storm Alex put the Gulf oil spill largely in Mother Nature’s hands Tuesday. Regardless of whether the storm makes things worse or better, it has turned many people fighting the spill into spectators.
Oil-scooping ships in the Gulf of Mexico steamed to safe refuge because of the rough seas, which likely will last for days. Officials scrambled to reposition boom to protect the coast, and had to remove barges that had been blocking oil from reaching sensitive wetlands.
Alex is projected to stay far from the spill zone and is not expected to affect recovery efforts at the site of the blown offshore well that continues to spew crude, but the storm’s outer edges were causing problems. Waves were as high as 12 feet in parts of the Gulf, according to the National Weather Service.
In at least one area of coastal Louisiana, the waves were tossing oil-soaking boom around and forcing crews to take precious time putting it back in place. However, oily water was not yet crashing over it.
U.S. Coast Guard Lt. Dave French said all skimming efforts had been halted for now off the Louisiana coast. Wayne Hebert, who helps manage skimming operations for BP PLC, said all nearshore skimmers were idled off the coasts of Florida, Alabama and Mississippi.
“Everyone is in because of weather, whether it’s thunderstorms or (high) seas,” Hebert said.
French said workers were using the time off the water to replenish supplies and perform maintenance work.
“We’re ready to go as soon as conditions allow us to get those people back out and fighting this oil spill,” French said.
Farther inland, local officials worried the weather could hamper efforts to keep the oil out of Lake Pontchartrain, which so far has not been affected by the spill. The brackish body of water, connected to the Gulf by narrow passes, is a recreational haven for the metropolitan New Orleans area.
Authorities worried that underwater currents and an easterly wind might drive a 250-square-mile oil slick north of the Chandeleur Islands toward the lake.
“We’re very concerned because of the weather,” said Suzanne Parsons, spokeswoman for St. Tammany Parish, which is on the north side of the lake. “That means they can’t get out and start working it. This may be the first test of our outer lines of defense.”
Meanwhile, Jefferson Parish Council member Chris Roberts said the oil was entering passes Tuesday at Barataria Bay, home to diverse wildlife. A day earlier, barges that had been placed in the bay to block the oil were removed because of rough seas.
“The barges are removed and the boom is being displaced in many areas,” Roberts said in an e-mail. “As weather conditions permit we are making progress with repositioning the boom.”
The loss of skimming work combined with 25 mph gusts driving water into the coast has left beaches especially vulnerable. In Alabama, the normally white beaches were streaked with long lines of oil, and tar balls collected on the sand. One swath of beach 40 feet wide was stained brown and mottled with globs of oil matted together.
That nasty weather will likely linger in the Gulf through Thursday, National Weather Service meteorologist Brian LaMarre said.