Rough Seas Halt Gulf Oil Skimming Operations

(NECN: Lauren Collins, Manchester, NH) - Tropical Storm Alex is steering clear of the oil slick in the Gulf, but it is affecting clean up efforts.

BP and the Coast Guard were forced to send oil skimming ships back to shore because of the high surf.

This hurricane season is a race between clean-up efforts in the gulf and the next major storm.

"What's really important is where the center of that storm comes in relative to where most of the oil is in the water," says Dr. Nancy Kinner at the UNH Coastal Response Research Center. 

Winds in a hurricane or tropical storm rotate counter clockwise - an eye to the east of the spill would actually push oil out to sea.  An eye directly to south or west of the deepwater horizon site could overwhelm the already delicate coastline with a wash of oil.

Then there is the human factor.  The gulf is an off shore city filled with oil and clean up workers who can't simply abandon ship. 

"You've got all of that drilling equipment down there and you just can't drop it and let it go," says Dr. Kinner, who is an expert on oil spills - she's been before congress twice since the deepwater horizon blast.

While drilling platforms and oilrigs typically shut down and evacuate in advance of a major storm, "in this particular case we have a lot of vessels out there that are not tethered."

And those take two to four days to clear out of harm's way -- just as long to re-deploy after the storm.  There's the ship operating the relief well at the deepwater horizon site.  The vessels running robotic arms and cameras thousands of feet below the surface.

A direct or near hit from a hurricane would force those ships to pull out, containment to efforts cease, oil to freely gush into the ocean, "and you won't have people out there doing clean up operations.  It's just not going to happen."

Alex has churned up seas enough to force skimming ships back to shore, but it's track towards Texas doesn't appear to pose a significant threat to crews in the gulf.

"The conditions," says Dr. Kinner, "are not predicted right now to be as rough so they may not have to pull the relief well rigs off." 

That gives clean up and relief workers a chance to get ahead of the next storm.

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