Crews drilling a relief well aimed at putting a permanent underground plug in BP's busted oil well in the Gulf of Mexico will suspend their work until storms pass, the government's point man for the disaster said Tuesday.
Retired Coast Guard Adm. Thad Allen says the suspension could delay completion of the relief well by two or three days.
Crews will pop in a temporary plug to keep what they've drilled so far safe. They have about 30 feet left to drill. The drilling rig will stay on the scene and ride out the wind and waves, Allen said.
The new well is meant to allow BP to pump mud and cement into the broken one from deep underground for a so-called "bottom kill" that would complement a mud-and-cement plug injected into the top of the well last week.
BP and federal scientists are now taking pressure measurements inside the well. Allen said there's a chance that those test results will tell them with certainty that the well is fully plugged. If it is, he said, they would reconsider whether they even need to finish the relief well.
"I don't want to prejudge whether we are going to do it or not going to do it," he said. "It will be conditions-based."
Regardless, under federal regulations, the well still needs another plug closer to the seafloor before it can be abandoned.
On a conference call with reporters, Allen said there was a "very low probability" that the relief-well bottom kill won't be necessary.
Forecasters at the National Hurricane Center said there is a high chance that thunderstorms off southern Florida could strengthen in the next two days into a tropical disturbance headed over the Gulf.
With no more oil spewing since the well was capped in mid-July, federal authorities were set to announce that a stretch of the Gulf off Florida's Panhandle would be reopened for commercial and recreational fishing, a big business for the region.
Jane Lubchenco, administrator of the National Oceanic Atmospheric Administration, scheduled a Tuesday afternoon news conference at a marina in Panama City Beach to announce the reopening of federal waters off the Panhandle. Details were not immediately available. Large swaths of the Gulf off Louisiana, Mississippi, Alabama and Florida have been closed to fishing since early in the spill.