BP’s containment cap collected 255,000 gallons that otherwise would have gushed into the Gulf, but the bulk of the oil eluded capture and more globs made landfall in Florida.
PENSACOLA — A containment cap British Petroleum placed over its gushing underwater disaster is slowly increasing the amount of oil it’s collecting, the U.S. government’s point man said Saturday.
BP’s cap, initially put in place on Thursday, collected 255,000 gallons of oil in its first full day, said Coast Guard Adm. Thad Allen. Official estimates say a minimum of 504,000 to 798,000 gallons of oil are spewing underwater each day, though some scientists estimate the number to be significantly higher.
In Florida’s Panhandle, tourists and locals witnessed what they hoped they would never see: oil-stained sea shells, birds coated with crude and hundreds of tar balls scattered on sandy white beaches turning a light brown.
More was on the way: A light oily sheen, about 100 yards long and three miles wide, was spotted half a mile from Pensacola Beach as officials estimated that winds would push the oil east along the Florida Panhandle through the weekend.
Beachgoers gathered carrying cameras, shovels and plastic bags to document the phenomenon and hunt for tar balls that have been splattering ashore since Friday.
On Saturday, officials also reported tar balls at Perdido Key, west of Pensacola Beach, while a dozen tar mats, 30-by-15 feet and trailed by sheen, were seen six miles southeast of Navarre Beach.
In spite of the tar balls and oil sheens, officials from the Department of Environmental Protection said beaches, the jewel of Florida’s tourism industry, will remain open and occasional contact with small amounts of oil won’t harm beachgoers.
Gov. Charlie Crist toured the Pensacola shoreline Saturday with Department of Environmental Protection Secretary Mike Sole and Gulf Coast native and singer Jimmy Buffett, who is opening a Margaritaville hotel in Pensacola Beach on June 24.
Crist said he would ask for more oil-containment booms to keep the spill off Florida’s shore.
But when asked at a press briefing if the answer was to place more booms to protect beaches, the Coast Guard’s Allen said the solution was not so simple.
“The hardest place to pick up oil is a marsh or a wetland. The easiest place to remove oil is a sandy beach,” Allen said.
About 400 workers were spread along the Pensacola Beach area for cleanup efforts Saturday.
Separately touring the Pensacola shore, Republican Florida Sen. George LeMieux blasted the federal government and BP’s response, saying the state needed more help.
“I want to see the president of the United States here in Escambia County,” LeMieux said, later adding that “we have to keep the oil from leaking first and do everything we can to keep more from coming.”
“We need more skimmers down here . . . What we need to see out of British Petroleum is more money,” he said.
In his Saturday radio address, President Barack Obama responded to criticism of the government’s reaction to the spill, saying his administration’s response has been the largest to any environmental disaster in U.S. history.
“This spill has not just damaged livelihoods. It’s upended whole communities,” Obama said. “And the fury people feel is not just about the money they’ve lost. They’ve been through tough times before. It’s about the wrenching recognition that this time their lives may never be the same.”
As pressure continued to mount on BP, the company announced that it would double its payments in June to individuals and businesses along the Gulf Coast filing claims seeking compensation for income lost because of the spill.
BP said it will spend a total of $84 million on claims by the month’s end.
SOUTH FLORIDA PROTEST
Obama has slammed BP for spending $50 million on television advertising to manage its image and planning to pay out $10 billion in dividends to shareholders this quarter.
“We are prepared for the worst, even as we hope that BP’s efforts bring better news than we’ve received before . . . there will continue to be a massive cleanup ahead of us,” Obama said Saturday.
Scientists say it is only a matter of time before the relentless crude washes through the Florida Straits and up the East Coast.
On Saturday afternoon, about 25 protesters rallied at Fort Lauderdale Beach Park in one of scores of “Seize BP” protests taking place across the nation this week.
Ana Maria Campos, 39, of Fort Lauderdale, touted a yellow poster that read: “I love oil-free manatees.”
“People are going to freak the hell out,” she said about the oil spill reaching South Florida. “There’s no way that it’s not coming.”
Somewhere between 22 million and 47 million gallons of oil have spilled into the Gulf since the April 20 blast aboard BP’s Deepwater Horizon oil rig, which killed 11 people.
BP’s latest containment cap, which looks similar to a large upside-down funnel, is capturing perhaps one-third of the oil that continues to spew underground, though estimates of how much oil is spilling vary widely. The cap has four vents to reduce the pressure inside its imperfect seal. Engineers were working to close two on Saturday to allow more oil to be captured.
The Coast Guard’s Allen said BP officials are trying to strike a balance and being careful to not close the vents too quickly out of fear that too much pressure would build in the cap or that water would rush in and form icy hydrates, similar to what caused an earlier containment effort to fail.
LIKE PLUGGING A HOSE
He compared it to plugging a running garden hose with a finger, saying, “You don’t want to put your finger down too quickly, or let it off too quickly.”
Allen said BP will gradually increase the oil being captured up to the device’s capacity, which is 630,000 gallons per day. He also stressed that the cap is a temporary solution and that two relief wells, which won’t be completed until August, are the best option for stopping the spill.
The brunt of the oil disaster has devastated southern Louisiana, where oil has slicked or killed dozens of birds, including endangered brown pelicans. It has also ravaged marshland and crippled the state’s fishing industry.
Allen said the federal government is trying to keep cleanup resources like oil-skimming boats and booms along Gulf coast states that have been clamoring for more help.
On Saturday, Crist said Allen promised up to 20 more boats to skim oil off Florida waters as tar balls and sheens become a common sight.
“We’ve already seen plenty of them,” said Tim Backues of Missouri, who stopped with his family at Pensacola Beach to see the sunrise Saturday and instead found tar balls.
Said his wife, Amiee: “It’s disgusting.”