ON BARATARIA BAY, La. – A device sucking some of the oil from a blown-out well in the Gulf of Mexico offered optimism Sunday 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.
The containment cap placed on the gusher near the sea floor trapped about 441,000 gallons of oil Saturday, BP spokesman Mark Proegler said Sunday, up from around 250,000 gallons of oil Friday. 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.
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.
The next step is for BP engineers to attempt to close vents on the cap that allow streams of oil to escape and prevent that water intake, and Hayward told the BBC that the company hopes a second containment system will be in place by next weekend.
Coast Guard Adm. Thad Allen, the federal government’s point man for the response, took issue on CNN’s “State of the Union” on Sunday with BP officials who said they were pleased with results of the latest effort. He said progress was being made, “but I don’t think anybody should be pleased as long as there is oil in the water.”
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 April 20, killing 11 workers and rupturing the wellhead a mile below the surface. Since then, millions of gallons of oil have been rising to the surface, spreading out across the sea, washing ashore and killing wildlife.
Pelicans are struggling to free themselves from oil that gathers in hip-deep pools, while others stretch out useless wings, their 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, La. “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.
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 scrubbed oil off his feet with Dawn dishwashing detergent.
Baum had driven 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.
At Pensacola Beach, Buck Langston and his family took to collecting globs of tar instead of sea shells on Sunday morning. They used improvised chopsticks to pick up the balls and drop them into plastic containers. Ultimately, the hoped to help clean it all up, Langston said.
“Yesterday it wasn’t like this, this heavy,” Langston said. “I don’t know why cleanup crews aren’t out here.”
With no oil response workers on Louisiana’s Queen Bess Island, 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.”
At the mouth of Alabama’s Mobile Bay, hundreds of seagulls squawked on a beach dotted with countless small tar balls but not a cleanup crew in sight.
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.
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.