BP`s cap collects some oil even as slick taints beaches
Driftwood and seashells glazed with rust-colored tar lined the surf along the Gulf Coast`s once-pristine white sand beaches.
Pensacola beach: Driftwood and seashells glazed with rust-colored tar lined the surf along the Gulf Coast`s once-pristine white sand beaches Saturday, the crude from a busted oil well deep underwater washing ashore in greater quantities and farther east.
A cap placed over the gusher was believed to be collecting anywhere from about a quarter to half of the leaking oil, even as the slick stained beaches with a waxy mess of tar balls and created an unusual orange foam in the surf.
In Gulf Shores, Ala., oil from beachgoers` feet spotted boardwalks leading to hotels, and some condominiums provided solvents for guests smeared with the brown goo. At Pensacola Beach, the retreating high tide left an orange stain in its wake.
Erin Tamber moved to the beach area after surviving Hurricane Katrina in New Orleans, where she had lived for 30 years.
"I feel like I`ve gone from owning a piece of paradise to owning a toxic waste dump," she said as she inspected the beach Saturday morning.
Six weeks after an April 20 oil rig explosion killed 11 workers, oil giant BP PLC has failed to significantly stem the worst spill in US history. The government`s point man for the crisis, Coast Guard Adm. Thad Allen, said at a news briefing Saturday that the cap collected about 252,000 gallons of oil Friday, its first full day of use.
That amount is about a half-percent to 1 percent of the total oil that, according to government estimates, has already leaked from the sea floor.
The device, resembling an upside-down funnel, was lowered over the blown-out well a mile beneath the sea to try to capture most of the oil and direct it to a ship on the surface. BP officials are trying to strike a delicate balance by capturing as much oil as possible without creating too much pressure or allowing the build-up of ice-like hydrates, which form when water and natural gas combine under high pressures and low temperatures.
Hydrates foiled an earlier containment box because the slushy mixture clogged pipes and threatened to make the massive box float away.
The trick for BP is achieving the right balance of pressure so oil will come to the surface without spewing out of a rubber seal between the cap and a sheared-off riser pipe. Allen 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," he said.
The goal is to gradually raise the amount of the oil being captured, Allen said. The device`s daily capacity is 630,000 gallons, and officials estimate about a half-million to a million gallons a day are gushing out.
The well has leaked about 23 million to more than 46 million gallons since the crisis began, according to government estimates.
President Barack Obama pledged Saturday in his weekly radio and Internet address to fight the spill with the people of the Gulf Coast. His words for BP were stern: "We will make sure they pay every single dime owed to the people along the Gulf coast."
On his trip Friday to the Grand Isle, La., his motorcade passed a building adorned with his portrait reminiscent of posters of him during his presidential campaign. Instead of "hope" or "change," the words "what now?" were on his forehead.
The oil has reached the shores of Louisiana, Mississippi, Alabama and Florida. It has turned marshlands into death zones for wildlife and stained beaches rust and crimson. Some said it brought to mind the plagues and punishments of the Bible.
"In Revelations it says the water will turn to blood," said P.J. Hahn, director of coastal zone management for Louisiana`s Plaquemines Parish. "That`s what it looks like out here — like the Gulf is bleeding. This is going to choke the life out of everything."
He added: "It makes me want to cry."
On Saturday morning at a public beach in Gulf Shores, a long line of brown globs marked the high water line from overnight at the public beach.
"This is disgusting," said Macon Srygley, of McCalla, Ala. "I hate it for BP, but this has to be a lesson for anyone drilling in the ocean. We`ve got all this technology, but are we not smart enough to realize we can end ourselves with it?"
Health officials said that people should stay away from the mess but that swallowing a little oil-tainted water or getting slimed by a tar ball was no reason for alarm — for humans, at least.
A total of 527 birds have been found dead from Texas to Florida since the start of the oil leak, according to a federal tally released Friday. The exact cause of death was not immediately known for all the birds, although more than three dozen were visibly oiled.
Authorities said 235 sea turtles and 30 mammals have also been found dead.
Allen planned to meet later Saturday with Alabama Gov. Bob Riley, who has criticized Coast Guard decisions to send boom from Alabama to Louisiana and said he will consider closing beaches if the oil becomes a health threat. Oil hit Alabama before the boom could be returned, angering Riley and raising questions about Coast Guard management.
"It`s like a battle; you have to move your resources," Allen said in an interview. "You don`t always get it back in time, but you do your best."
BP CEO Tony Hayward assured investors that the company had "considerable firepower" to cope with the severe costs. Hayward and other senior BP executives struck a penitent note in their first comprehensive update to shareholders since the explosion, promising to meet its obligations related to the spill.