Ships head back to oil well, ready to resume work

NEW ORLEANS — Ships were getting back in place Sunday at the Gulf of Mexico site of BP’s leaky oil well as crews raced to resume work on plugging the gusher before another big storm stops work again.

Now that Tropical Storm Bonnie has fizzled on Louisiana’s coast, engineers are hoping clear weather lasts long enough for them to finish their work on relief wells. 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 Saturday. Sure enough, another disturbance already was brewing in the Caribbean, although forecasters said it wasn’t likely to strengthen into a tropical storm.

Meanwhile, British media reported 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.

Back on the Gulf, a rig drilling the relief tunnel that will pump in mud and cement to seal the well returned to the spill site after evacuating the area.

Crews corked the relief tunnel Wednesday and the temporary halt had an unpleasant consequence: 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.

Even though the evacuation turned out to be short-lived, it revealed one important fact: BP and the federal government are increasingly sure that the temporary plug that has mostly contained the oil for eight days will hold.

They didn’t loosen the cap even when they thought they’d lose sight of it during the evacuation, although in the end, at least some of the real-time cameras trained on the ruptured well apparently kept rolling.

Ironically, the storm 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.

At the site of the relief well, workers who spent Thursday and Friday pulling nearly a mile of segmented steel pipe out of the water and stacking the 40-to-50 foot sections on deck will now have to reverse the process. It will likely be Monday before BP can resume drilling.

By Wednesday, workers should finish installing steel casing to fortify the relief shaft, Allen said, and by Friday, crews plan to start blasting in heavy mud and cement through the mechanical cap, the first phase of a two-step process to seal the well for good. BP will then finish drilling the relief tunnel — which could take up to a week — to pump in more mud and cement from nearly two miles under the sea floor.

Meanwhile, folks in the oil-affected hamlet of Grand Isle, La., 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.”

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Associated Press writers Tamara Lush in New Orleans and Mary Foster in Grand Isle, La., contributed to this report.

David Dishneau and Harry R. Weber/The Associated Press