GULF OF MEXICO — A wellhead cap at the bottom of the Gulf of Mexico is slowly pinching off a geyser of oil spewing from the earth, but there’s no containing much of the crude that’s already escaped, a reality becoming increasingly evident on the region’s beaches.
The battle to contain the oil is likely to stretch into the fall, the government’s point man on the spill warned. The cap will trap only so much of the oil, and relief wells being drilled won’t be completed until August. Meanwhile, oil will continue to shoot out.
To Kelcey Forrestier, a 23-year-old biology graduate visiting Okaloosa Island, Fla., it was already clear Sunday that the spill and its damage will last long into the future.
“Oil just doesn’t go away. Oil doesn’t disappear,” said Forrestier, of New Orleans. “It has to go somewhere and it’s going to come to the Gulf beaches.”
Lifeguards found a “very minor” set of fingernail-size tar balls over the weekend on the western edge of the island about 35 miles east of Pensacola, marking the easternmost point oil has been discovered ashore.
The spill’s harmful environmental effects also appear to have spread to Texas, with the government saying yesterday that dead, oiled birds were reported for the first time in that state. A wildlife report issued yesterday by the government command center in Robert, La., says two dead birds with oil on them were found in Texas, but didn’t elaborate on the circumstances. Dozens of dead, oiled birds have been found in other Gulf states, the majority of them in Louisiana.
Jim Suydam, a spokesman for the Texas General Land Office, which has been monitoring spill, said he hadn’t heard about the birds and that the oil was still 100 miles from the Texas-Louisiana border.
Officials reported yesterday afternoon that a sheen of oil was spotted about 150 miles west of Tampa, though they did not expect the slick to reach the western Florida peninsula in the near future.
BP said today that the cost of the response has reached about $1.25 billion. The company said the figure does not include $360 million for a project to build six sand berms meant to protect Louisiana’s wetlands from spreading oil.
The prospect that the crisis could stretch beyond summer devastated residents along the Gulf, who are seeing more and thicker globs of oil appear all along the coast.
The floors in Ruth Dailey’s condominium in Gulf Shores, Ala., are already smeared with dark blotches of oil, she said, and things are only going to get worse.
“This is just the beginning,” she said. “I have a beachfront condo for a reason. With this, no one will want to come.”
A couple miles away, workers cleaning sand at a state park finished their work and left their refuse on the beach in the way of the incoming tide.
“Waves are washing over plastic bags filled with tar and oil. It’s crazy,” said Mike Reynolds, a real estate agent and director of Share The Beach, a turtle conservation group.
Environmental and consumer advocate Erin Brockovich planned to visit southern Louisiana today to speak to people who say they’ve been sickened by dispersants used to break up the oil spill.
At Pensacola Beach, Fla., the turquoise waves also were flecked with floating balls of tar. Buck Langston, who has been coming to the beach to collect shells for 38 years, watched as his family used improvised chopsticks to collect the tar in plastic containers.
“Yesterday it wasn’t like this, this heavy,” Langston, of Baton Rouge, La., said yesterday. “I don’t know why cleanup crews aren’t out here.”
Coast Guard Adm. Thad Allen, overseeing the government’s response to the spill, has expressed similar frustration, ordering cleanup crews to the Alabama coastline after surveying the scene from the air. But he acknowledged the relative futility of their efforts.
“It’s so widespread, and it’s intermittent,” he told The Associated Press Saturday. “That’s what’s so challenging about this. Everyone wants certainty. With an oil spill like this, there isn’t any.”
Since it was placed over the busted well last Thursday, the cap has been siphoning an increasing amount of oil. On Saturday, it funneled about 441,000 gallons to a tanker on the surface, up from about 250,000 gallons it captured Friday.
But it’s not clear how much is still escaping from the well, which federal authorities have estimated was leaking between 500,000 gallons and one million gallons a day. Since the spill began nearly seven weeks ago, roughly 23 million to 50 million gallons of oil have leaked into the Gulf.
The inverted funnel-like cap is being closely watched for whether it can make a serious dent in the flow of new oil. Allen reserved judgment, saying he didn’t want to risk offering false encouragement.
“This will be well into the fall,” he said yesterday on CBS’ “Face the Nation.” ”This is a siege across the entire Gulf. This spill is holding everybody hostage, not only economically but physically. And it has to be attacked on all fronts.”