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Glimmer of progress to stem leaks as oil spill spreads

NEW ORLEANS

BP spent Monday preparing possible solutions to stem oil leaks from an undersea well off the Louisiana coast, and fending off new accusations about its role in the widening environmental disaster.

Crews finished a containment chamber, a 4-story structure that the company plans to lower over one of the three leaks to catch the escaping oil. Two more chambers could be finished today, with all three to be placed by the end of the week, said Bill Salvin, a company spokesman.

BP was also set on Monday to install a shutoff valve at the site of one of the leaks, but the seas were too rough, delaying that effort. Heavy winds damaged miles of floating booms laid out in coastal waters to protect the shoreline from the spreading oil slick, which appeared to be drifting toward the Alabama and Florida coasts and the Chandeleur Islands off Louisiana's southern tip.

Meanwhile, lawyers representing environmental groups, workers from the oil rig and fishermen who have been hurt by the leak levied fresh accusations against BP, as well as Transocean and Halliburton. BP was operating the rig leased from Transocean. Halliburton was providing a number of services on the rig, including cementing, which is a method of capping the well to control pressure from the oil and gas beneath.

The New York Times reported that lawyers for a worker who was on the oil rig at the time of the explosion on April 20, and who handled company records for BP, said that the rig was drilling deeper than 22,000 feet, even though the company's federal permit allowed it to go only to 18,000-20,000 feet deep.

BP strongly denied the claim.

As the well gushes 210,000 gallons of oil a day into the Gulf of Mexico, BP said that it was "absolutely responsible" for stopping the leak, cleaning up the oil on the water's surface and any resulting environmental damage.

"This is not our accident, but it's our responsibility," BP's chief executive, Tony Hayward, said in a round of media appearances. "And where there are legitimate claims for business interruption, we will make them good.

Florida's top environmental official and other politicians say the state is bracing for pollution and damage to hit the state's beaches and its oyster, bait and sport fisheries.

"It is an enormous mess. It is unbelievable — the magnitude of this thing. Clearly every effort needs to be put on plugging the hole up and stopping the bleeding,'' Gov. Charlie Crist said.

Crist on Monday extended a state of emergency from the western Panhandle around the Big Bend as far south as Sarasota. The coastal counties added are Franklin, Wakulla, Jefferson, Taylor, Dixie, Levy, Citrus, Hernando, Pasco, Pinellas, Hillsborough, Manatee and Sarasota.

Scientists warned that they expect the oil will soon be captured by the Gulf Loop Current — part of a powerful liquid highway that could carry the oil as far south as the Florida Keys and back up the east coast into the Atlantic.

That alone doesn't spell doom for Florida, according to physical oceanographer Bob Weisberg. Winds and weather help determine whether the oil is pushed onto the state's beaches or out into the Atlantic Ocean.

"If the winds are blowing the wrong way, the Keys could be in trouble, or Miami or Palm Beach," said Weisberg, one of a number of scientists tracking the spill at the University of South Florida St. Petersburg. "It depends on a combination of where the oil is and where the winds are blowing at any one time."

The loop current would likely spare Florida's West Coast, including Tampa Bay, from the brunt of the spilled oil, he said. The current flows about 125 miles off Florida's western shelf.

Scientists estimated Monday that the oil slick and loop current were 30 to 40 miles apart. But a University of Miami scientist said a coming atmospheric front could quickly close that gap by pushing the oil slick south.

If that happens, oceanographer Nick Shay said, oil and the current will make first contact within 24 to 48 hours. From there, the oil could reach the Keys in about a week.

In Pensacola, officials from BP and the state Department of Environmental Protection struggled to answer questions about the spill.

As Coast Guard sailors loaded a fresh batch of booms on board a cutter to deploy across the coastline — even though others had already broken free and washed away — a gaggle of reporters peppered BP spokesman Daren Beaudo with questions until his face became as tight as a drumhead.

"We are doing everything humanly possible to stop the flow of oil," Beaudo said. "Unfortunately we have not been unsuccessful."

Later, 400 residents packed the Pensacola Beach Community Church to demand answers — and left with more questions. "Anybody here other than me feeling helpless?" asked Escambia County Sheriff David Morgan, trying for a joke. Nobody laughed.

After BP spokeswoman Liz Castro said the company had deployed 300,000 feet of booms across the area's most environmentally sensitive regions, beach resident Rhonda Chavers pointed out that that's only 6 miles.

The Panhandle's coastline is a lot bigger than that, she said. She also wanted to know if there would be other rigs with similar problems: "Is this a fluke?"

"We do have safety measures in place," Castro said.

"Apparently not enough safety standards were in place to protect the future of our children," Chavers shot back.

College professor Richard Sjolander pointed out that hurricane season is less than a month away. When Hurricane Ivan made landfall in 2004, it swept waves across the top of the fishing pier and into streets and houses. If some similar storm crosses the gulf next month, it might push the oil ahead of it into those same areas, he said.

Since the oil is considered toxic, Sjolander said, "will it require a complete demolition of everything on the beach?"

"I can't answer those questions," said Darryl Boudreau, assistant director of DEP's Pensacola district. "We have no magic bullet."

Many of the questions concerned lost money from a ruined tourist season, or lost property values. Condominium owner Betsy Robbins was applauded by the crowd when she asked if BP "is willing to buy out people at pre-spill prices." Castro could only tell her to call BP's claims hotline.

Marilyn McDonald asked the bottom line question: "How long is this going to last and who is going to pay for us to go elsewhere?" Nobody knew the answer to the first question, but Castro promised BP would handle the second one.

McDonald was skeptical: "Are y'all going to be here with a check the day we have to get out?" She didn't get an answer.

Times staff writers Craig Pittman and Jamal Thalji contributed to this report, which contains information from Mary Ellen Klas and Marc Caputo of the Times/Herald Tallahassee Bureau and the New York Times.

Glimmer of progress to stem leaks as oil spill spreads 05/03/10 [Last modified: Tuesday, May 4, 2010 12:51am]

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