Federal officials said Thursday that they would leave the damaged BP well sealed even if the site is evacuated in advance of a storm brewing in the Gulf of Mexico.
"The decision has been made to leave the cap on even if the well is unattended," national incident commander Thad Allen said during an afternoon briefing.
The cap, installed last week, has stopped the gusher of oil that spewed into the gulf for three months. But the possibility existed that BP would be required to open it in the event of a storm and the evacuation of underwater robots and other equipment that are keeping a close watch for any new leaks.
Allen said that after days of consultations and careful monitoring, federal scientists were confident enough in their knowledge of the surrounding seabed to leave the well sealed and will no longer require BP to get daily extensions for the seal.
"What we're slowly doing is understanding the neighborhood, creating a 3-D model of the neighborhood," Allen said.
A tropical storm with winds exceeding 39 mph is expected to reach the vicinity of the well site 50 miles off the Louisiana coast early Saturday, possibly forcing evacuation of the fleet of response and drilling vessels. Allen said officials would decide later today whether they have to disconnect equipment involved in drilling the relief well, a move that could set that nearly completed operation back by days.
In another development, federal fishery authorities said they were reopening more than 26,000 square miles of gulf waters that were closed to commercial fishing, roughly a third of the area that had been closed.