Tropical storm season comes to the oily Gulf

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By Joseph Picard | June 29, 2010 1:59 AM EST

It is Day 69 since the Deepwater Horizon oil rig exploded in the Gulf of Mexico, killing 11 crew members and cracking open the well pipe one mile underwater.

Despite several efforts to stop the leak, as much as 60,000 barrels of oil a day is still gushing from the ruptured well. The response effort is currently siphoning off about 25,000 barrels, with expectations of increasing that amount in the coming days.

The relief well being drilled that is expected to stop the leak is still on pace to be completed by mid-August. Currently, however, tropical storm season has begun in the Gulf. Tropical Storm Alex has already formed and, although it is not now expected to come near the Deepwater Horizon site, officials are remaining cautious.

"We are watching the Tropical Storm Alex.  As you know, it's moving westerly and slightly to the north.  We've been in constant contact with the National Hurricane Center," Coast Guard Admiral Thad Allen, the national incident commander for the spill response, said at a press briefing Saturday.

"At this point it does not threaten the site but we know that these tracks can change and we're paying very close attention to it," Allen said.

Allen said the response team has a contingency plan in place if a tropical storm or hurricane heads towards the leak site.

"At about 120 hours out of the onset of gale-force winds, we will start to redeploy the equipment from the well site, redeploy other equipment to safe venues, and then come in after the storm to re-establish production or to take part in rescue activities with the Coast Guard," Allen said.

Allen admitted that redeploying personnel and equipment means suspending the siphoning procedure and letting the leak gush at full force again. But the concern in a storm has to be for the workers and equipment, he said.

The oil continues to spread in the gulf in slicks and underwater plumes. According to government figures, approximately 179 miles of Gulf Coast shoreline is currently oiled -- approximately 34 miles in Louisiana, 42 miles in Mississippi, 42 miles in Alabama, and 61 miles in Florida.

About one third of federal waters in the Gulf, or 78.600 square miles, remains closed to fishing.

More than 6,500 vessels are currently responding to the spill, the largest oil leak disaster in U.S. history. Vessels include skimmers, tugs, barges, and recovery vessels to assist in containment and cleanup efforts.  Approximately 2.63 million feet of containment boom and 4.41 million feet of sorbent boom have so far been deployed to contain the spill.

Scientists say that it hard to determine the long-term effects upon Gulf wildlife, but a degradation of the entire ecosystem is possible.

Meanwhile, BP has dedicated at least $20 billion to pay out claims for damages from the spill to businesses and individuals, and the fund is in the process of being transferred to an independent administrator.

The Minerals Management Service, a part of the Department of Interior which was responsible for overseeing the safety of oil drilling in the Gulf, is undergoing departmental reform, with a new name, a new executive director and changes promised for its operations. A bill in the Senate also seeks to reform the agency, which apparently failed in its monitoring duties regarding BP and the Deepwater Horizon rig. President Obama has said MMS was too "cozy" with the industry it was supposed to regulate.

Actions and inactions connected with the disaster are being investigated by numerous government agencies. Last week, the House of Representatives voted to grant subpoena power to the national commission appointed by Obama to probe the oil spill and drilling in the Gulf.

"Subpoena power is an essential resource to make certain that BP and others cooperate in this investigation and will allow the Commission to get testimony from crucial participants, such as those who reported equipment problems prior to the explosion," said Speaker of the House Nancy Pelosi, D-CA.

The Senate is yet to act on the subpoena power bill.

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