Work to plug leaky well back on track after storm

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Oil sheen is seen with vessels assisting near the source of the BP Deepwater Horizon oil spill July 23, 2010 in the Gulf of Mexico off the coast of Louisiana.

NEW ORLEANS - The effort to plug BP's leaky oil well in the Gulf of Mexico was back on track Sunday as the skies cleared and crews raced to stop the gusher for good before another storm halts the operation again.

A drill rig was reconnecting to the relief tunnel that will be used to pump in mud and cement to seal the well, and drilling could resume in the next few days, BP spokesman Steve Rinehart said Sunday morning.

A temporary plug has already held in the oil for nine days, and BP was able to leave it in place even after the government's point man on the spill ordered ships working in the Gulf to evacuate ahead of Tropical Storm Bonnie late last week.

Bonnie fizzled on Louisiana's coast and the ships returned. But as peak hurricane season approaches, the potential for another storm-related delay is high.

"We're going to be playing a cat-and-mouse game for the remainder of the hurricane season," retired Coast Guard Admiral Thad Allen said. The season ends Nov. 30.

As work resumed, British media reported that BP chief executive Tony Hayward is negotiating the terms of his departure ahead of the company's half-year results announcement Tuesday.

Citing unidentified sources, the BBC and Sunday Telegraph reported that detailed talks regarding Hayward's future took place over the weekend. A formal announcement is expected in the next 24 hours, the BBC reported.

BP spokesman Toby Odone said Sunday that Hayward "remains BP's chief executive, and he has the confidence of the board and senior management."

Hayward, who angered Americans by minimizing the spill's environmental impact and expressing his exasperation by saying "I'd like my life back," has been under heavy criticism over his gaffe-prone leadership during the spill.

Before the cap was attached and closed a week ago, the broken well had spewed 94 million to 184 million gallons into the Gulf since the BP-leased Deepwater Horizon rig exploded April 20, killing 11 workers.

Completion of the relief well that is the best chance to permanently stop the oil now looks possible by mid-August, but Allen said he wouldn't hesitate to order another evacuation based on forecasts similar to the ones for Bonnie.

"We have no choice but to start well ahead of time if we think the storm track is going to bring gale force winds, which are 39 mph or above, anywhere close to well site," Allen said.

In the oil-affected hamlet of Grand Isle, La., thousands of people spent a gray Saturday at the beach, listening to music. The Island Aid concert, which included LeAnn Rimes and Three Dog Night, raised money for civic projects on the island.

For the afternoon at least, things were almost back to normal. Young women in bathing suits rode around on golf carts while young men in pickup trucks tooted their horns and shouted.

"This is the way Grand Isle is supposed to be but hasn't been this year," said Anne Leblanc of Metairie, La., who said her family has been visiting the island for years. "This is the first we came this year. With the oil spill there hasn't been a reason to come, no swimming, no fishing."

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Associated Press writers Tamara Lush in New Orleans and Mary Foster in Grand Isle, La., contributed to this report.

© 2010 The Associated Press. All rights reserved.

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