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Work on stalled relief well to restart 96 hours after storm passes

By the CNN Wire Staff
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Weather halts BP work on relief well
  • NEW: After tropic system passes, it will take about 96 hours to restart relief well drilling
  • NEW: Contractor working on spill response struck by car and killed
  • The tropical depression that caused drilling to stand down is nearing the Gulf Coast
  • Obama administration official in Pensacola for another meeting on off-shore drilling

Mobile, Alabama (CNN) -- The work to permanently seal BP's ruptured oil well in the Gulf of Mexico will have to wait about four days after Tropical Depression Five passes the site, the government's point man in the Gulf said Wednesday.

As the heavy rains and gusty winds associated with the weakening tropical depression moved closer to the Gulf Coast Wednesday, retired Coast Guard Adm. Thad Allen told reporters crews were preparing for whatever weather was to come.

"We're not sure how it will develop moving forward, but it has a chance to strengthen," Allen said. "Over an abundance of caution, we have suspended operations out on the wellhead for a couple of days to make sure we can continue with the relief well safely.

"The winds are expected to be about 35 miles an hour, which is slightly below the tropical storm threshold, but the seas will get up to around 12 feet and there are some safety issues associated with that. We expect it to lay down around Friday. To that extent, Development Driller 3 that is drilling the relief well hasn't disconnected, but they've put a subsea containment device they call a packer into the well to protect it."

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On Tuesday, he explained the packer process in more detail: Crews had pulled the drill string out, put the packer plug in the casing pipe and filled the riser with seawater so the pipe would be stable. He said that's an easily reversible process once the weather passes: Purge the seawater out, pull the packer out and reinsert the drill string to begin drilling again.

He added Wednesday, "It will probably take them about 96 hours once the storm has passed to get back and finish their work." That work is drilling the relief well that is expected to intercept the damaged well so crews will be able to begin the "bottom kill" procedure to permanently cement the well.

As of the 2 p.m. ET forecast, Tropical Depression Five was about 175 miles south of Pensacola, Florida, and about 150 miles east-southeast of the mouth of the Mississippi River, the National Hurricane Center said.

The center said the system could bring 3 to 5 inches of rain to the region through Friday morning, with isolated pockets of up to 8 inches.

The well erupted after an April 20 explosion aboard the drilling rig Deepwater Horizon that left 11 men dead. A temporary cap contained the spill on July 15, and nearly 3,000 barrels of heavy drilling mud and cement drove the well back into the ocean floor last week through a process called a "static kill."

Contract workers have been aiding the cleanup and containment response since soon after the explosion. Allen said one contractor working in Plaquemines Parish, Louisiana, was struck and killed while walking along a road around 2 a.m. Wednesday.

"Name is being withheld pending notification of next of kin and our thoughts go out to him and his family," Allen said.

The well gushed an estimated 53,000 barrels (2.3 million gallons) of oil per day before it was capped. Since then, fresh, green grass has begun growing again in some of the hardest-hit marshes of southern Louisiana, but oil continues to wash ashore in places.

Some of the environmental damage appears to have abated. The National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration reopened 5,144 square miles of Gulf waters on Tuesday for commercial and recreational fishers to catch finfish, saying that since July 3, its data have shown no oil in the area, and Coast Guard observers flying over the area in the past 30 days also have not observed any oil. In addition, NOAA said fish caught in the area and tested by NOAA experts have shown no signs of contamination.

The closed area now covers 52,395 miles, or 22 percent of the federal waters in the Gulf, down from 37 percent at its peak, NOAA said.

The Gulf remains closed to deepwater drilling, but the head of the government agency that regulates offshore drilling said in Mobile, Alabama, on Tuesday it's unlikely a six-month moratorium on the practice will be extended.

"Obviously, we can't predict everything that we learn or everything that may happen in the outside world before then, but ... I see no information so far that would justify extending the moratorium," said Michael Bromwich, the head of the Bureau of Ocean Energy Management, formerly the Minerals Management Service. "[It's] not impossible but unlikely," he said.

Bromwich was in Mobile hosting a forum with federal, state and local leaders across the Gulf Coast to gather input on deepwater drilling safety reforms, well containment and oil spill response. He is being briefed by panels of experts from academia, the environmental community and the oil and gas industry so he can evaluate whether to recommend any modifications to the scope or duration of deepwater drilling suspensions announced by Interior Secretary Ken Salazar on July 12.

Bromwich held another forum in Pensacola, Florida, on Wednesday.

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