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Jun 6, 2010 11:31 PM by Chris Welty

1 Step Up, 1 Step Back: Spill May Linger Into Fall

NEW ORLEANS (AP) - A containment cap was capturing more and more
of the crude pouring from a damaged oil well in the Gulf of Mexico,
but that bit of hope was tempered Sunday by a sharp dose of
pragmatism as the federal government's point man warned the crisis
could stretch into the fall.
The inverted funnel-like cap is being closely watched for
whether it can make a serious dent in the flow of new oil. Coast
Guard Adm. Thad Allen, overseeing the government's response to the
spill, reserved judgment, saying he didn't want to risk offering
false encouragement.
Instead, he warned on CBS' "Face the Nation" that the battle
to contain the oil is likely to stretch into the fall. The cap will
trap only so much of the oil, and relief wells being drilled won't
be completed until August. In the meantime, oil will continue to
spew out.
"But even after that, there will be oil out there for months to
come," Allen said.
"This will be well into the fall. 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," he said.
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 that
federal authorities at one point 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 49 million gallons of
oil have leaked into the Gulf.
The prospect that the crisis could stretch beyond summer was
devastating to residents along the Gulf, who are seeing thicker
globs of oil show up in increasing volume all along the coastline.
In Ruth Dailey's condominium in Gulf Shores, Ala., floors
already are smeared with dark blotches of oil, she said, and things
are only going to get worse.
"This is just the beginning," she said. "I have a beachfront
condo for a reason. With this, no one will want to come."
Kelcey Forrestier, 23, of New Orleans, said she no longer trusts
the word of either BP or the U.S. government in laying out the
extent of the spill. But it is clear to Forrestier, just coming in
off the water at Okaloosa Island, Fla., that the spill and its
damage will last long into the future.
"Oil just doesn't go away. Oil doesn't disappear," said
Forrestier, who just earned a biology degree. "It has to go
somewhere and it's going to come to the Gulf beaches."
BP chief executive Tony Hayward told the BBC on Sunday that he
believed the cap was likely to capture "the majority, probably the
vast majority" of the oil gushing from the well. The gradual
increase in the amount being captured is deliberate, in an effort
to prevent water from getting inside and forming a frozen slush
that foiled a previous containment attempt.
Allen was reluctant to characterize the degree of progress,
saying much more had to be done.
"We need to underpromise and overdeliver," he said.
BP engineers must next try to close vents on the containment cap
that are allowing oil to escape and preventing that water intake.
Hayward told the BBC that the company hopes a second containment
system will be in place by next weekend. Allen told CBS that the
oil would stop flowing only when the existing well is plugged with
cement once the relief wells have been completed.
Once the cap is fully operational, if it is ultimately
successful, it could capture a maximum of 630,000 gallons of oil a
day.
Besides installing the containment cap, BP officials have said
they want a second option for siphoning off oil by next weekend.
The plan would use lines and pipes that previously injected mud
down into the well - one of several failed efforts over the past
six-plus weeks to contain the leak - and instead use them to suck
up oil and send it to a drilling rig on the ocean surface.
BP also wants to install by late June another system to help
cope with hurricanes that could roar over the site of the damaged
well. When finished, there would be a riser floating about 300 feet
below the ocean's surface - far enough below the water so it would
not be disturbed by powerful hurricane winds and waves but close
enough so ships forced to evacuate could easily reconnect to the
pipes once the storm has passed.
None of these fixes will stop the well from leaking; they're
simply designed to capture what's leaking until the relief wells
can be drilled.
Since the Deepwater Horizon rig exploded 50 miles off the coast
of Louisiana on April 20, killing 11 workers, BP PLC has tried and
failed a number of efforts to contain the leak. In the past week,
increasing quantities of thick oily sludge have been making their
way farther east, washing up on some of the region's hallmark
white-sand beaches and coating marshes in black ooze. An
observation flight spotted a sheen of oil 150 miles west of Tampa,
but officials said Sunday they didn't expect it to reach western
Florida any time soon.
Already, cleanup crews along the coast were struggling to keep
pace with oil washing up thicker and faster by the hour. The sight
and smell of oil undermined any consolation offered by reports of
progress at the wellhead. Instead, Gulf residents voiced
frustration with the apparent holes in cleanup efforts.
At Gulf Shores, Dailey walked along a line of oil mixed with
seaweed that stretched as far as the eye could see. Collecting bits
of the rust-colored oil did nothing to ease her anger. Clumps of
seaweed hiding tar balls make the scene appear better than it
really is, she said. Pick up a piece of weed and often there's oil
underneath.
"They're lying when they say they're cleaning these beaches,"
said Dailey, of Huntsville. "They're saying that because they
still want people to come."
Eventually, workers used a big sand-sifting machine to clean the
public beach, leaving it spotless, at least for a while.
But a couple miles away, workers cleaning a section of sand at a
state park finished their work and left their refuse on the beach
in the way of the incoming tide.
"Waves are washing over plastic bags filled with tar and oil.
It's crazy," said Mike Reynolds, a real estate agent and director
of Share The Beach, a turtle conservation group.
At Pensacola Beach, Fla., 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," said Langston, of
Baton Rouge, La. "I don't know why cleanup crews aren't out
here."
As hundreds of cars streamed through the toll booths at the
entrance to the beach, a protester stood at the side of the road
wearing a gas mask, lab coat, latex gloves and holding a "Drill
Baby Drill" sign with tea bags hanging from the edges.
Shawn Luzmoor said he works at a local environmental lab and has
been testing the oil and tar that is washing up on the beaches.
"It's not safe and it's not right what's happening out there,"
he said.
Allen expressed similar frustration, ordering cleanup crews to
the Alabama coastline over the weekend 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 said. "That's
what's so challenging about this. Everyone wants certainty. With an
oil spill like this, there isn't any."

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