NEW ORLEANS - A geyser of oil spewing from the bottom of the Gulf of Mexico is slowly tapering off with the help of a wellhead cap, but there’s no containing much of the crude that’s already escaped, a reality becoming increasingly evident at the region’s beaches and marshes.
The battle to contain the oil is likely to stretch into the fall, the government’s point man on the spill warned. The cap will trap only so much of the oil, and relief wells being drilled won’t be completed until August. Meanwhile, oil will continue to shoot out.
To Kelcey Forrestier, a 23-year-old biology graduate visiting Okaloosa Island, Fla., it was already clear Sunday that the spill and its damage will last long into the future.
“Oil just doesn’t go away. Oil doesn’t disappear,” said Forrestier, of New Orleans. “It has to go somewhere and it’s going to come to the Gulf beaches.”
Lifeguards found a “very minor” set of fingernail-size tar balls over the weekend on the western edge of the island about 35 miles east of Pensacola, marking the easternmost point oil has been discovered ashore.
Officials put out a report late Sunday that dead, oiled birds had been found in Texas but retracted it Monday morning. U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service spokeswoman Nancy Brown blamed the mistake on a clerical error.
BP said Monday that the cost of the response has reached about $1.25 billion. The company said the figure does not include $360 million for a project to build six sand berms meant to protect Louisiana’s wetlands from spreading oil.
The prospect that the crisis could stretch beyond summer devastated residents along the Gulf, who are seeing more and thicker globs of oil appear all along the coast.
In Gulf Shores, Ala., Jerry Chessey went for a walk on the beach Monday, stopping on a sandy spot. He was surrounded by clumps of brown seaweed full of rust-colored oil. At his feet, a small yellow
cup was coated with black crude, which apparently washed ashore
overnight from deeper water.
“It’s disappointing,” said Chessey, who drove to Gulf Shores with his wife from their home in Cincinnati. “We walked on the beach last night and didn’t see any oil. But we walked up to the condo, and it was all over our feet.”
In Florida, tar balls continued to roll onto Pensacola Beach and left a distinct line in the sand from the high-rise condos above as the sun rose Monday morning.
Beach walkers had to stay between the line of dime- and quarter-size tar balls and the retreating surf or risk getting the gummy, rust-staining gunk stuck to their feet.
Jody Haas, a tourist from Aurora, Ill., was among the few walking the beach early Monday after a crowded weekend here. Haas, who had visited the beach before, said it was not the same.
“It was pristine, gorgeous, white sand,” she said. “This spot is light compared to some of the other spots farther down and (the tar) is just everywhere here. It’s just devastating, awful.”
At Pensacola Beach on Sunday, the turquoise waves also were flecked with floating balls of tar. Buck Langston, who has been coming to the beach to collect shells for 38 years, watched as his family used improvised chopsticks to collect the tar in plastic containers.
“Yesterday it wasn’t like this, this heavy,” Langston, of Baton Rouge, La., said Sunday. “I don’t know why cleanup crews aren’t out here.”
Coast Guard Adm. Thad Allen, overseeing the government’s response to the spill, has expressed similar frustration, ordering cleanup crews to the Alabama coastline after surveying the scene from the air. But he acknowledged the relative futility of their efforts.
“It’s so widespread, and it’s intermittent,” he told The Associated Press on Saturday. “That’s what’s so challenging about this. Everyone wants certainty. With an oil spill like this, there isn’t any.”
Since it was placed over the busted well on Thursday, the cap has been siphoning an increasing amount of oil. On Saturday, it funneled about 441,000 gallons to a tanker on the surface, up from about 250,000 gallons it captured Friday.
But it’s not clear how much is still escaping from the well, which federal authorities have estimated was leaking between 500,000 gallons and 1 million gallons a day. Since the spill began nearly seven weeks ago, roughly 23 million to 50 million gallons of oil have leaked into the Gulf.
The inverted funnel-like cap is being closely watched for whether it can make a serious dent in the flow of new oil. Allen reserved judgment, saying he didn’t want to risk offering false encouragement.
“This will be well into the fall,” he said Sunday on CBS’ “Face the Nation.” “This is a siege across the entire Gulf. This spill is holding everybody hostage, not only economically but physically. And it has to be attacked on all fronts.”