Storms threaten BP oil spill clean-up

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A tropical depression moving quickly toward the Gulf of Mexico last night raised pressure on BP and the US government to decide whether to evacuate dozens of ships at the site of the company's ruptured Macondo oil well.

The National Hurricane Centre in Miami said a cluster of thunderstorms in the Bahamas formed into a tropical depression yesterday morning. Forecast tracks showed it moving into the eastern and central Gulf over the next few days.

Work on plugging the well came to a standstill days before the expected completion of a relief tunnel to permanently throttle the flowing crude. Worse yet, the government official overseeing the work said foul weather could require reopening the cap that had contained the oil for nearly a week. "This is going to be a judgement call," said Thad Allen, a retired admiral with the US Coast Guard. BP said no decisions had been made.

Crews had planned to spend Wednesday and yesterday reinforcing with cement the last few feet of the relief tunnel that will be used to pump mud into the leaking wellhead and block it once and for all. But BP put the task on hold in case it had to be abandoned until the storm passes.

If the work crews are evacuated, it could be two weeks before they can resume work. BP's timetable had called for finishing the tunnel by the end of next week and plugging the blown-out well by early August.