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Digging on relief well suspended as Bonnie heads toward Gulf

By the CNN Wire Staff
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Weather threatens oil containment
  • NEW: Vessels begin to evacuate because of tropical storm
  • Officials are confident that a cap placed over the well will remain sealed amid storm
  • Biden announces more than 25,000 square miles of waters will reopen to commercial fishing

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New Orleans, Louisiana (CNN) -- Tropical Storm Bonnie has forced the evacuation of many of the vessels in the area of the Gulf of Mexico oil disaster, including the rig digging a relief well.

The evacuation started Thursday night, retired Coast Guard Adm. Thad Allen said in a statement. "This includes the rig drilling the relief well that will ultimately kill the well, as well as other vessels needed for containment. Some of the vessels may be able to remain on site, but we will err on the side of safety."

However, the cap placed over the damaged well in the Gulf of Mexico will remain sealed, despite evacuation, said Allen, who who is leading the federal response to the spill. A sealed cap means no oil is escaping.

He said the remote operating vehicles (ROV) that have been monitoring beneath the surface for leaking oil will be the last to leave and the first to return "in order to maximize monitoring of the well."

The departure of the relief well rig will delay work the operation -- described as the permanent fix to the ruptured well -- for at least 10 days.

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Allen noted that more then 2,000 people are working at the well site. "While these actions may delay the effort to kill the well for several days, the safety of the individuals at the well site is our highest concern."

Earlier, Allen had said sensors and extensive monitoring have allowed observers to "rule out any indications there might be a leak." His confidence in the integrity of the well "improved dramatically" within the past few days after he examined data, he said.

BP is also considering a tactic called "static kill" that could help seal the broken well. The process involves pumping mud into the well to force oil back into the reservoir below.

Kent Wells, senior vice president of BP, said the company has gotten approval from Allen to begin preparing for the process, but the company will still need to seek the government's final approval before actually carrying out a "static kill."

The operation would follow the installation of casing in the well, Allen said Wednesday. However, that process is on hold.

Earlier, Vice President Joe Biden, who visited the Gulf region Thursday for the first time since June 29, said more than 25,000 square miles of federal waters, mainly in the southeast portion of the Gulf of Mexico, will reopen to commercial fishing.

"What we're talking about here is almost one-third of the entire closed areas ... will be open. And we're going to continue to work to see that the rest of it is open ... as soon as we can guarantee that the fish coming out of those waters are edible and safe," Biden said.

During his trip to Theodore, Alabama, the vice president met with several fishermen and addressed concerns they expressed about being able to live as their families have for generations.

"The stuff that hurts the most is the stuff that changes people's way of life," Biden said. "The president and I understand that cleaning up is not the same as recovery."

Meanwhile, officials at the Unified Area Command center say they continue to track the tropical weather and remain in constant communication with the National Hurricane Center, the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration and the Federal Emergency Management Agency, which is ultimately responsible for the safety of the more than 40,000 people currently assisting in recovery and response efforts in the Gulf region.

"The protection of the equipment and crew is paramount to ensure maximum ability to respond to any new challenges a storm may pose to the enormous mission," Rear Adm. Paul Zukunft, the federal on-scene coordinator, said in a news release Thursday.

"We are repositioning assets away from low-lying areas to higher-ground staging areas to protect our ability to respond to the dynamic requirements of the incident," Zukunft said.

At 8 p.m. ET, the tropical storm was moving northwest at 14 miles an hour over the central Bahamas, according to the

National Hurricane Center.

It could pick up strength as it moves over the long stretch of open water in the Gulf of Mexico, but the latest computer models do not show it becoming a hurricane, according to CNN meteorologist Chad Myers.

The storm is expected to pass the southern tip of Florida on Friday afternoon and then make landfall Sunday between New Orleans and the Beaumont-Port Arthur area in southeastern Texas. Myers said it's more likely to bear down on Louisiana.

Severe weather could also cause an environmental setback. If the tropical weather system makes its way to the Gulf Coast marshlands, it could diminish or erase encouraging signs of recovery from the BP oil spill, according to a scientist who spearheaded the first major examination of the Louisiana coast wetlands.

"Early marsh regrowth could easily be taken away with high winds and waves," said Tom Bianchi, a Texas A&M oceanography professor who has spent his career researching marshes.

Bianchi, who used to live in New Orleans and lost his old home to Hurricane Katrina, said he felt an obligation to find out the status of the coastal wetlands in his former home state.

"I had to return. I had to hope, and I was, honestly, shocked that we saw signs of new life," he said. "The marshes are badly, badly damaged, but we found some regeneration."

Bianchi and researchers from several other universities studied the wetlands off Grand Isle, Louisiana, by boat over the past week, funded by a $114,000 emergency grant from the National Science Foundation. Several days of inspecting the swampy home of mussels, crabs, sea grass and microbial creatures yielded good news for a precious part of the region's food chain, Bianchi said.

CNN's Ashley Fantz and Vivian Kuo contributed to this report.

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