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Jun 6, 2010 2:02 PM by Chris Welty

Gulf Containment Cap Closely Watched in 2nd Day

ON BARATARIA BAY, La. (AP) - A containment cap that sucked some
of the oil from a blown-out well in the Gulf of Mexico offered a
small sign of progress for a region that has seen its wildlife
coated in a lethal oil muck, its fishermen idled and its beaches
tarnished by the nation's worst oil spill.
BP chief executive Tony Hayward told the BBC on Sunday that over
the last 24 hours, the cap placed on the gusher near the sea floor
trapped about 420,000 gallons of oil. It's not clear how much is
still escaping - an estimated 500,000 to 1 million gallons of crude
is believed to be leaking daily.
Hayward said he believed the cap is likely to capture "the
majority, probably the vast majority" of the oil gushing from the
well.
The next step is for engineers at BP PLC to attempt to close
vents on the cap that were deliberately allowing streams of oil to
escape the system so water cannot get inside. When water and gas
combined in an earlier containment box, it formed a frozen slush
that foiled the system.
The federal government's point man for the response, Coast Guard
Adm. Thad Allen, said the goal is to gradually increase the amount
of the oil being captured. He compared the process to stopping the
flow of water from a garden hose with a finger: "You don't want to
put your finger down too quickly, or let it off too quickly."
While BP plans to eventually use an additional set of hoses and
pipes to increase the amount of oil being trapped, the ultimate
solution remains a relief well that should be finished by August.
The urgency of that task was apparent along the Gulf Coast
nearly seven weeks after a BP rig exploded and the wellhead a mile
below the surface began belching millions of gallon of oil.
Pelicans struggle to free themselves from oil, thick as tar,
that gathers in hip-deep pools, while others stretch out useless
wings, feathers dripping with crude. Dead birds and dolphins wash
ashore, coated in the sludge. Seashells are stained crimson.
"These waters are my backyard, my life," said boat captain
Dave Marino, a firefighter and fishing guide from Myrtle Grove. "I
don't want to say heartbreaking, because that's been said. It's a
nightmare. It looks like it's going to be wave after wave of it and
nobody can stop it."
The oil has steadily spread east, washing up in greater
quantities in recent days.
Government officials estimate that roughly 22 million to 48
million gallons have leaked into the Gulf since the April 20
explosion that killed 11 workers.
A line of oil mixed with seaweed stretched all across the beach
Sunday morning in Gulf Shores, Ala. The oil often wasn't visible,
hidden beneath the washed-up plants. At a cleaning station outside
a huge condominium tower, Leon Baum was scrubbing oil off his feet
with Dawn dishwashing detergent.
Baum drove with his children and grandchildren from Bebee, Ark.,
for their annual vacation on Alabama's coast. They had contemplated
leaving because of the oil, but they've already spent hundreds of
dollars on their getaway.
"After you drive all this way, you stay," Baum said.
Alabama Gov. Bob Riley and Allen met for more than an hour
Saturday in Mobile, Ala., agreeing to a new plan that would
significantly increase protection on the state's coast with larger
booms, beachfront barriers, skimmers and a new system to protect
Perdido Bay near the Florida line.
At Pensacola Beach, Erin Tamber, who moved to the area from New
Orleans after surviving Hurricane Katrina in New Orleans, inspected
a beach stained orange by the retreating tide.
"I feel like I've gone from owning a piece of paradise to
owning a toxic waste dump," she said.
Back in Louisiana, along the beach at Queen Bess Island, oil
pooled several feet deep, trapping birds against containment boom.
The futility of their struggle was confirmed when Joe Sartore, a
National Geographic photographer, sank thigh deep in oil on nearby
East Grand Terre Island and had to be pulled from the tar.
"I would have died if I would have been out here alone," he
said.
With no oil response workers on Queen Bess, Plaquemines Parish
coastal zone management director P.J. Hahn decided he could wait no
longer, pulling an exhausted brown pelican from the oil, slime
dripping from its wings.
"We're in the sixth week, you'd think there would be a flotilla
of people out here," Hahn said. "As you can see, we're so far
behind the curve in this thing."
After six weeks with one to four birds a day coming into
Louisiana's rescue center for oiled birds at Fort Jackson, 53
arrived Thursday and another 13 Friday morning, with more on the
way. Federal authorities say 792 dead birds, sea turtles, dolphins
and other wildlife have been collected from the Gulf of Mexico and
its coastline.
Yet scientists say the wildlife death toll remains relatively
modest, well below the tens of thousand of birds, otters and other
creatures killed after the Exxon Valdez ran aground in Alaska's
Prince William Sound. The numbers have stayed comparatively low
because the Deepwater Horizon rig was 50 miles off the coast and
most of the oil has stayed in the open sea. The Valdez ran aground
on a reef close to land, in a more enclosed setting.
Experts say the Gulf's marshes, beaches and coastal waters,
which nurture a dazzling array of life, could be transformed into
killing fields, though the die-off could take months or years and
unfold largely out of sight. The damage could be even greater
beneath the water's surface, where oil and dispersants could
devastate zooplankton and tiny invertebrates at the base of the
food chain.
"People naturally tend to focus on things that are most
conspicuous, like oiled birds, but in my opinion the impacts on
fisheries will be much more severe," said Rich Ambrose, director
of the environmental science and engineering at program at UCLA.
The Gulf is also home to dolphins and species including the
endangered sperm whale. A government report found that dolphins
with prolonged exposure to oil in the 1990s experienced skin
injuries and burns, reduced neurological functions and lower
hemoglobin levels in their blood. It concluded that the effects
probably wouldn't be lethal because many creatures would avoid the
oil. Yet dolphins in the Gulf have been spotted swimming through
plumes of crude.
The prospect left fishing guide Marino shaking his head, as he
watched the oil washing into a marsh and over the body of a dead
pelican. Species like shrimp and crab flourish here, finding
protection in the grasses. Fish, birds and other creatures feed
here.
"It's going to break that cycle of life," Marino said. "It's
like pouring gas in your aquarium. What do you think that's going
to do?"

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