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Tropical Storm Alex no threat yet to BP oil spill efforts

The Atlantic's first tropical storm developed Saturday morning, chugging along toward Mexico's Yucatan Peninsula, although forecasters weren't sure how close it might come to disrupting oil spill recovery efforts in the Gulf of Mexico.

Tropical Storm Alex, just before 11 a.m. on Saturday, boasted winds of about 40 mph.

"Barely a tropical storm,'' said Dave Roberts, a hurricane specialist at the National Hurricane Center in West Miami-Dade.

The storm was likely to pass over the Yucatan land mass early Sunday, weakening a bit before emerging in the Bay of Campeche early next week and strengthening again, possibly into a weak Category 1 hurricane, Roberts said.

While the storm's westerly track might spare the oil recovery zone, he said, it was too early to tell with this rare June storm in the Gulf.

The size of the storm was of concern -- tropical storm force winds extend outward about 115 miles, mostly to the north and the east.

``It's a little larger than the average system,'' Roberts said.

Winds in excess of 45 miles per hour days away from the Deepwater Horizon gusher in the Gulf of Mexico spill could force at-sea workers to abandon their oil collection efforts for as long as two weeks, according to the head of the national response effort.

``At this point, it's not a threat to the site but we know these tracks can change,'' Coast Guard Adm. Thad Allen, the federal official overseeing the response, said in a conference call Saturday afternoon.

He added: ``We're tracking the weather very closely.''

Federal officials will suspend relief and clean-up efforts if gale force winds are projected to hit the disaster zone within five days. The time frame would give over 6,000 sea vessels, ranging from small private boats to large Coast Guard cutters and barges massed in the Gulf, time to make it back to land safely.

Over 38,000 people involved in disaster relief efforts would need to hunker down on land, at the same time hurricane response plans are carried out wherever the storm is slated to make landfall -- creating a logistical challenge for state and federal officials.

Among the vessels that would head for safety would be the drill ships Discover Enterprise and Q4000, key to the improvised oil system being used at the Deepwater Horizon disaster site to collects gushing crude.

The storm would mean unplugging the ships attached to the makeshift ``top hat'' system for perhaps two weeks, conservatively unleashing another half-million barrels of oil into the sea -- twice the Exxon Valdez spill. Using upper-end federal estimates of the leak, 840,000 barrels would gush out. That's 35 million gallons.

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