Spill Workers Take Cover As Storm Approaches

Work at the site of the Gulf of Mexico oil spill is at a standstill as Tropical Depression Bonnie approaches. Host Scott Simon checks in on the situation with NPR's Carrie Kahn in New Orleans.

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SCOTT SIMON, host:

The oil spill cleanup operation in the Gulf of Mexico is on hold this morning as a storm heads towards the region. Cleanup crews and ships have moved to higher ground and safe harbor in anticipation of high winds and seas. NPR's Carrie Kahn joins us from New Orleans. Carrie, thanks for being with us.

CARRIE KAHN: Thanks for having me.

SIMON: And this storm, called Bonnie, has now been downgraded from a tropical storm to a tropical depression. Is the oil spill site out of any danger?

KAHN: No. It's still directly in the path of this depression that's coming. It's going to head straight for it. And it's expected to hit sometime later this afternoon. But the weather system, as you said, has weakened so much and it isn't very well formed, but you never know. It could gain strength again over those warm Gulf waters. But meteorologists say that even if Bonnie does grow, it wouldn't grow any bigger than a tropical storm.

So everybody's just watching the winds. And exactly what it will do to the oil spill, nobody knows. It just depends where the storm makes landfall - that's one thing they're looking at.

SIMON: Yeah.

KAHN: They're trying to figure out if it goes to the east of the Mississippi River outlet. It might be good for the oil spill 'cause it could churn it up and disperse it. But if it falls to the west of where the river opens into the Gulf, you know, those winds could push a lot of the oil onto wetlands and property in low-lying areas, and that wouldn't be too good.

SIMON: And do we know what this storm means for the effort to try to stop the flow of oil that's coming out of the well?

KAHN: Well, it's definitely postponed it and put everything off. You know, they had to take - evacuate the boats from the site. Some there may try and ride it out, especially the ones that are monitoring the well and operating those robots that are sending us back those live video pictures.

But the two, huge ships that are drilling those relief wells that are hopefully going to permanently stop the flow of oil out of the well, they had to leave. And they spent all day yesterday pulling up a mile of the pipe, you know, in 40-and 60-foot-long sections and putting it on the deck of the boat and so - and then bringing that boat into the port. So that definitely will delay the drilling of the relief wells, and by some estimates maybe a week to 10 days.

SIMON: Because they'd have to come back and put all that apparatus back into the waters.

KAHN: Yeah, they have to come back in. Well, they have to wait out the storm, and then they have to come back in, put it all back down. And it's, you know, a mile below the surface.

SIMON: There's some disturbing testimony in hearings in Louisiana this week about the condition of the oil rig and specifically, the alarm system when this spill occurred. What can you tell us about that?

KAHN: Right. The chief electronics technician, who was on the Deepwater Horizon rig at the time it exploded, was testifying yesterday. And he said that the alarm system was routinely - and he used the word inhibited, meaning that it wasn't fully engaged. And he said this was standard practice. He said leadership on the rig told him that they didn't want false alarms and sirens and lights waking up workers at 3 a.m. And he also said that the control room was a mess and that for months, the computer system there was locking up. And the crew just began calling this one computer screen the blue screen of death.

All week at the hearings, they heard crew members talking to this government panel of repeated failures in the week before the explosion. There were power losses, computer crashes and leaking emergency equipment.

SIMON: Carrie, what's the next phase of the operation after this storm passes?

KAHN: It all depends what happens, and the latest from National Weather Service is that they think Bonnie has really lost a lot of steam, and they may even downgrade it to just a low-pressure system. So we'll have to see what happens.

SIMON: NPR's Carrie Kahn in New Orleans. Thanks so much for being with us.

KAHN: You're welcome.

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