Waves of gooey tar balls crashed into the white sands of the Florida Panhandle on Friday as BP engineers adjusted a sophisticated cap over the Gulf oil gusher, trying to collect the crude.
Even though the inverted funnel-like device was set over the leak late Thursday, crude continued to spew into the sea in the nation’s worst oil spill. Engineers hoped to close several open vents on the cap throughout the day in the latest attempt to contain the oil.
The cap has different colored hoses loosely attached to it to help combat the near-freezing temperatures and icy-like crystals that could clog it. The device started pumping oil and gas to a tanker on the surface overnight, but it wasn’t clear how much.
“Progress is being made, but we need to caution against over-optimism,” said Coast Guard Adm. Thad Allen, the government’s point man for the disaster. He said a very rough estimate of current collection would be about 42,000 gallons a day, though he stressed the information was anecdotal.
In Florida, spotters who had been seeing a few tar balls in recent days found a substantially larger number before dawn on the beaches of the Gulf Islands National Seashore and nearby areas, a county emergency official said. The park is a long string of connected barrier islands near Pensacola. Just to the west at Gulf Shores, Ala., Wendi Butler watched glistening clumps of oil roll onto the white sand beach during a morning stroll. An oily smell was in the air.
“You don’t smell the beach breeze at all,” said Butler, 40.
Butler moved to Perdido Bay from Mobile days before the spill.
Now, her two kids don’t want to visit because of the oil and she can’t find a job. “Restaurants are cutting back to their winter staffs because of it. They’re not hiring,” she said.
President Barack Obama was set to visit the Louisiana coast Friday, his second trip in a week and the third since the disaster unfolded following an April 20 oil rig explosion. Eleven workers were killed.
Robots a mile beneath the Gulf were shooting chemical dispersants at the escaping oil — though it looked more like flares when illuminated a mile underwater. To put the cap in place, BP had to slice off the main pipe with giant shears after a diamond-edged saw became stuck. By doing so, they risked increasing the flow by as much as 20 percent, though Allen said it was still too soon to know whether that had happened.
“Once the containment cap is on and it’s working, we hope the rate is significantly reduced,” he said.
The jagged cut forced crews to use a looser fitting cap, but Allen did not rule out trying to again smooth out the cut with the diamond saw if officials aren’t satisfied with the current cap.
In oil-soaked Grand Isle, BP representative Jason French might as well have painted a bulls-eye on his back. His mission was to be BP’s representative at a meeting for 50 or so residents who had gathered at a church to vent.
“We are all angry and frustrated,” he said. “Feel free tonight to let me see that anger. Direct it at me, direct it at BP, but I want to assure you, the folks in this community, that we are working hard to remedy the situation.” Residents weren’t buying it.
“Sorry doesn’t pay the bills,” said Susan Felio Price, who lives near Grand Isle.“ Through the negligence of BP we now find ourselves trying to roller-skate up a mountain,” she said. “We’re growing really weary. We’re tired. We’re sick and tired of being sick and tired. Someone’s got to help us get to the top of that mountain.”
Obama shared some of that anger ahead of his Gulf visit. He told CNN’s Larry King that he was frustrated and used his strongest language in assailing BP.
“I am furious at this entire situation because this is an example where somebody didn’t think through the consequences of their actions,” Obama said. “This is imperiling an entire way of life and an entire region for potentially years.” Meanwhile, newly disclosed internal Coast Guard documents from the day after the explosion aboard the Deepwater Horizon rig indicated that U.S. officials were warning of a leak of 336,000 gallons per day of crude from the well in the event of a complete blowout.
The volume turned out to be much closer to that figure than the 42,000 gallons per day that BP first estimated. Weeks later it was revised to 210,000 gallons. Now, an estimated 500,000 to 1 million gallons of crude is believed to be leaking daily.
The Center for Public Integrity, which initially reported the Coast Guard logs, said it obtained them from Rep. Darrell Issa (R-Calif.), ranking Republican on the House Oversight and Government Reform Committee.
The logs also showed early in the disaster that remote underwater robots were unable to activate the rig’s blowout preventer, which was supposed to shut off the flow from the well in the event of such a catastrophic failure.
The damage to the environment was chilling on East Grand Terre Island along the Louisiana coast, where workers found birds coated in thick, black goo. Images shot by an Associated Press photographer show Brown pelicans drenched in thick oil, struggling and flailing in the surf.
Officials say 60 birds, including 41 pelicans, were coated with oil when strong winds blew a heavy slick from the Gulf of Mexico spill to the rookery. The birds were being rescued and taken to a center for cleaning at Fort Jackson.
BP chief executive Tony Hayward promised that the company would clean up every drop of oil and “restore the shoreline to its original state.” “BP will be here for a very long time. We realize this is just the beginning,” he said.
Those on Grand Isle seemed less than convinced by BP’s assurances.
“We want you to feel what we feel,” said Leoda Bladsacker, a member of the town’s council, as her voice trembled. “We’re not going to be OK for a long, long time.”
Associated Press writers Eileen Sullivan in Washington, Paul J. Weber in Houston, Jay Reeves in Gulf Shores, Ala., and Janet McConnaughey in New Orleans contributed to this story.