Vessels toting skimming equipment and booms scrambled Saturday to contain two massive plumes that emergency officials said were bearing down on Pensacola Beach in the western Florida Panhandle.
There was alarm as the creeping plumes threatened the popular tourist destination for the first time, more than a week after gooey tar balls first started to appear on the white sands. A beach crowd that was thinner than usual for an early June weekend watched skimming vessels motoring out to try to contain the two massive slicks — both 2 to 3 miles wide — that Escambia County emergency officials said were within 6 miles of the shore.
The U.S. Coast Guard authorized the county to use booms to close Pensacola Pass — a major inlet from the gulf to Pensacola Bay and all of its bayous and estuaries — each night from 7 p.m. to 7 a.m. as the tide pulls the oil closer to Pensacola.
The creeping oil is taking its toll on some residents and visitors on Florida's so-called Emerald Coast. "It's like waiting for someone to die from cancer," said Greg Hall, who lives near Pensacola Beach and walks the shoreline each morning.
The Coast Guard has demanded that BP step up its efforts to contain the oil gushing into the gulf, telling the British oil giant in a letter that its slow pace in stopping the spill is becoming increasingly alarming as the disaster fouled the gulf coastline.
Scientists have estimated that anywhere from 40 million gallons to 109 million gallons of oil have already gushed into the Gulf of Mexico since the Deepwater Horizon drilling rig exploded April 20, killing 11 workers and triggering the worst oil spill in U.S. history. The latest cap installed on the blown-out well is capturing about 650,000 gallons of oil a day, but large quantities are still spilling into the sea.
On Saturday, a piece of wreckage that appears to be from the rig was found in Panama City Beach, about 190 miles from the site of the disaster, officials said. Bay County sheriff's Deputy Ray Maulbeck was working beach patrol Saturday morning when he came upon the stainless steel tank that had some oil oozing from it, along with barnacles and sea growth attached to it.
The Coast Guard and state environmental officials were called in to investigate, and they took the piece away. Maulbeck said the part had markings that identified it as having come from the rig.
Adjacent to Pensacola Beach, U.S. Interior Secretary Ken Salazar and Jon Jarvis, director of the National Park Service, rallied volunteers and employees at the Gulf Islands National Seashore on Saturday for a long, tough summer ahead.
"We want to make sure we keep it clean and clear and, at the end of the day, can get it restored to a position that is better than it was before April 20," Salazar said.
He said the Interior Department faces a tough task in protecting more than 160 miles of Gulf Coast national park shoreline from oil. As Salazar and Jarvis walked the beach, numerous skimming boats worked in the waters nearby, and helicopters and planes circled above to coordinate the efforts.
More than 1,900 skimming vessels, boats with booms to corral the oil and other vessels are working from the Mississippi coast to west Florida.
Along the Alabama coast on Saturday, pools of weathered oil grew thicker in the surf. Waves of unsightly brown surf hit the shores in Orange Beach, leaving stinking, dark piles of oil that dried in the hot sun and extended up to 12 feet from the water's edge for as far as the eye could see.
It was the worst hit yet to Alabama beaches. Tarlike globs have washed up periodically throughout the disaster, but Saturday's pollution was significantly worse.
Shelley Booker of Shreveport, La., who was staying in a condominium with her teenage daughter and friends, said, "I didn't think it was a big deal yesterday. This is awful."
The Coast Guard sent a testy letter to BP's chief operating officer, Doug Suttles, that said the company urgently needs to pick up the pace and present a better plan to contain the spill by the time President Barack Obama arrives on Monday for his fourth visit to the beleaguered coast. The letter, released Saturday, follows nearly two months of tense relations between BP and the government and reflects the growing frustration over the company's inability to stop the environmental disaster.
The Coast Guard initially sent a letter to BP on Wednesday asking for more details on its plans to contain the oil. BP responded, saying a new system to trap much more oil should be complete by mid July. That system's new design is meant to better withstand the force of hurricanes and could capture about 2 million gallons of oil daily when finished, the company said.
But Coast Guard Rear Adm. James Watson said in a followup letter Friday he was concerned that BP's plans were inadequate, especially in light of revised estimates last week that indicated the size of the spill could be up to twice as large as previously thought.
Suttles said the company will respond to the letter by tonight.
"We've got a team of people looking to see, can we accelerate some of the items that are in that plan and is it possible to do more," Suttles said in a brief interview after speaking to workers at a command center in Houma, La., where he thanked BP employees and contractors for their work in cleaning up the spill.
BP is trying to find new ways to capture more oil, but officials say the only way to permanently stop the spill is a relief well that will drill sideways into the broken well and plug it with cement. That is expected to take months.