Reporting from Atlanta and Los Angeles — The effort to permanently kill BP's troubled gulf well, originally scheduled for the end of this week, has been delayed several days by the approach of a tropical storm system, officials said Tuesday.
BP has suspended drilling of a relief well, now less than 50 feet from the bottom of the blown-out well, and doesn't expect to hit the damaged well until between Sunday and Tuesday of next week.
"There is going to be a delay of two, three days as we wait for the weather system to pass over, in an overabundance of caution, to make sure we don't cause any further problems down there," said Thad Allen, the national spill response chief.
Although drilling ships were evacuated in late July when a storm hit the spill area about 50 miles off the Louisiana coast, it will not be necessary this time. The drilling bit will be pulled up, but the equipment will remain at the site. "They're going to just ride out the storm," Allen said.
The system was hovering off the Florida coast in the southeastern Gulf of Mexico on Tuesday and was expected to reach the well site by late Wednesday.
Accuweather.com predicted the system would "probably never become a hurricane," but would bring torrential downpours, high winds and rough seas.
Before the company resumes the relief drilling, engineers said they would conduct a pressure test that should give them more information on the condition of the annulus, the area between the well's inner casing and its rock edge.
Last week, the company jammed cement down the casing from the top of the well. But engineers are unsure if the cement made it all the way down to the oil reservoir or into the annulus.
"What we don't know is exactly what we'll find in the annulus," said BP Senior Vice President Kent Wells. "It could be mud, it could be oil, it could be cement…. That's what we're trying to get a little more insight in when we do this test."
Although Allen has long maintained that plugging the well with mud and cement from the bottom, via the relief well, would be the "ultimate" solution, the pressure test may indicate that last week's cementing has already achieved that goal.
Since a mechanical cap shut down the well leak in mid-July, surface slicks have continued to shrink, leaving more of the gulf free of visible surface oil.
On Tuesday, the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration reopened more than 5,000 square miles off the Florida coast to commercial and recreational fishing. At the peak of fishing bans, NOAA had closed 37% of federal gulf waters. Now, about 22% remains closed.
"We worked closely with [the Food and Drug Administration] to establish a protocol for reopening," said NOAA Administrator Jane Lubchenco: There can't be any visible oil, and seafood samples must pass smell and chemical tests for the presence of hydrocarbons.
The sensory tests, which consist of trained specialists sniffing samples for chemical traces, are also used to detect residue from the dispersants used to break up the oil. But the agency has not yet designed a chemical test to pick up dispersants in seafood.
"We are working to develop one," Lubchenco said, noting that the FDA had concluded that dispersant residues did not present a public health threat.
Times staff writer Margot Roosevelt in Los Angeles contributed to this report.