ON THE GULF OF MEXICO – Engineers prepared to abandon their vigil over BP's broken oil well Friday as ships and rig workers evacuated the Gulf of Mexico ahead of Tropical Storm Bonnie.
The mechanical plug that's throttled the oil for a week will be left closed, even if the undersea robots monitoring the well's stability leave. The only way BP would know if the cap had failed would be satellite and aerial views of oil gushing to the surface.
But retired Coast Guard Adm. Thad Allen said he's confident the cap will hold, despite a few leaks that raised concerns last week. Scientists say even a severe storm shouldn't affect the plug, nearly a mile beneath the ocean surface 40 miles from the Louisiana coast.
Bonnie had maximum sustained winds near 40 mph Friday as it swirled about 80 miles south-southeast of Miami. A tropical storm watch was issued early Friday for the northern Gulf coast from Destin, Fla., to Morgan City, La., and the storm is on track to enter the Gulf of Mexico by the weekend.
The rough weather could delay by another 12 days the push to plug the broken well for good using mud and cement, Allen and BP officials conceded. Even if it's not a direct hit, the rough weather will push back efforts to kill the well by at least a week.
"Preservation of life and preservation of equipment are our highest priorities," Allen said.
The rigs working to plug the well were pulling up a mile of pipe and will start moving to safer waters later Friday, Allen said.
Ships carrying the robotic submarines watching the well will be the last to leave — likely for about two days — and the first to return.
"If conditions allow, they will remain through the passage of the storm," Allen said.
Audio surveillance gear left behind could tell BP whether the well is unstable, but they won't be able to listen to the recordings until the ships get back into the area.
Click image to see photos of oil spill aftermath
The delay in work would be worse if BP had to open the cap while the ships closely monitoring the well head left. More oil would have been allowed to spew into the Gulf until they returned.
Shell Oil is also evacuating its operations in the Gulf, moving out more than 600 workers and shutting down production at all but one well.
Seas already were choppy in the Gulf, with waves up to five feet rocking boats as crews prepared to leave, and more of the smaller boats involved in the coastal cleanup were called into port, Coast Guard Rear Adm. Paul Zukunft said.
At the spill site, the water no longer looks thick with gooey tar. But the oil is still there beneath the surface, staining the hull of cutters motoring around in it.
Before the cap was attached and closed a week ago, the broken well spewed 94 million to 184 million gallons into the Gulf after the BP-leased Deepwater Horizon rig exploded April 20, killing 11 workers.
Work on plugging the well came to a standstill Wednesday, just days before authorities had hoped to complete the relief shaft. Allen said Thursday he has told BP to go ahead preparing for a second measure called a static kill that would pump mud and cement into the well from the top, a move he said would increase the relief well's chances for success. BP will have to get final approval from Allen before starting the procedure.
Vice President Joe Biden visited cleanup workers in southern Alabama, and said he was cheered the cap could remain on.
"After the storm's passage we will be right back out there," Biden said.
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