Summer of oil looms for beleaguered Gulf Coast

By Mary Foster and Ted Anthony/The Associated Press

BOOTHVILLE, La. — This summer on the oil-stained Gulf Coast promises to be like no other.

Just off Louisiana on Grand Isle, which was slimed with goo from the Gulf gusher, the beach reopened for Memorial Day weekend but with several caveats: No swimming or fishing, and stay away from oil cleanup crews. Elsewhere, fishermen were idled during what’s normally a busy season, and floating hotels are being set up to house workers who will try to mop up the crude seeping into marshes.

With BP making yet another attempt to stem the flow from a blown-out Gulf well — this time only to contain the leak, not stop it — signs point to August before any real end is in sight. On top of that, hurricane season begins Tuesday.

“I was just sitting here thinking our way of life is over. It’s the end, the apocalypse,” said fisherman Tom Young of Plaquemines Parish on the coast. “And no one outside of these few parishes really cares. They say they do, but they don’t do nothing but talk. Where’s the action? Where’s the person who says these are real people, real people with families and they are hurting?”

BP’s new plan carries the risk of making the torrent worse, top government officials warned Sunday. Meanwhile, churches echoed with prayers for a solution.

“There are people who are getting desperate, and there are more getting anxious as we get further into the shrimping season and there is less chance they will recover,” said the Rev. Theodore Turner, 57, at Mount Olive Baptist Church in Boothville, near where oil first washed ashore. Fishermen make up about a third of his congregation.

As the oil washes ashore, crude-coated birds have become a frequent sight. At the sea’s bottom, no one knows what the oil will do to species like the newly discovered bottom-dwelling pancake batfish — and others that remain unknown but just as threatened.

Scientists from several universities have reported large underwater plumes of oil stretching for miles and reaching hundreds of feet beneath the Gulf’s surface, though BP PLC CEO Tony Hayward on Sunday disputed their findings, saying the company’s tests found no such evidence of oily clouds underwater.

“The oil is on the surface,” Hayward said. “Oil has a specific gravity that’s about half that of water. It wants to get to the surface because of the difference in specific gravity.”

One researcher said their findings were bolstered by the fact that scientists from different institutions reached similar conclusions with separate tests.

“There’s been enough evidence from enough different sources,” said marine scientist James Cowan of Louisiana State University, who reported finding a plume last week about 50 miles from the spill site. Cowan said oil reached to depths of at least 400 feet.

Perhaps most alarming of all, 40 days after the Deepwater Horizon blew up and began the underwater deluge, hurricane season is at hand. It brings the horrifying possibility of wind-whipped, oil-soaked waves and water spinning ashore and coating areas much farther inland.

The spill is already the worst in American history — worse, even, than the 1989 Exxon Valdez disaster. It has already released between 18 million and 40 million gallons of oil into the Gulf, according to government estimates.

“This is probably the biggest environmental disaster we’ve ever faced in this country,” White House Energy and Climate Change Advisor Carol Browner said on NBC’s “Meet the Press.”

BP’s next containment effort involves an assortment of undersea robot maneuvers that would redirect the oil up and out of the water it is poisoning.

The first step in BP’s latest effort is the intricate removal of a damaged riser that brought oil to the surface of the Deepwater Horizon rig. The riser will be cut at the top of the crippled blowout preventer, creating a flat surface that a new containment valve can seal against.

The valve would force the oil into a new pipe that would bring it up to a ship. The seal, however, would not prevent all oil from escaping. White House energy czar Carol Browner said Sunday the effort could result in a temporary 20 percent increase in the flow. BP has said it didn’t expect a significant increase in flow from the cutting and capping plan.

If the containment valve fails, BP may try installing a new blowout preventer on top of the existing one.

In the end, however, a relief well would ease the pressure on the runaway gusher in favor of a controlled pumping — essentially what the Deepwater Horizon was trying to do in the first place. But that will take at least two months.

Using government figures, if the leak continues at its current pace and is stopped on Aug. 1, 51 million to 106 million gallons will have spilled.

Coastal tent cities are about to rise to house the workers and contractors minimizing the damage, while barge-like floating hotels for a total of about 800 workers are being readied at three locations off Louisiana. Sand banks and barriers are being built. But the consensus around the Gulf Coast is turning more apoplectic and apocalyptic. This is, people are starting to say, a generational event — tragic to this generation, potentially crippling to the next.

“The oil spill is part of prophecy,” said Turner, the Louisiana minister. “The Bible prophesized hardships. If we believe the word of God is true — and we do — we also know that in addition to prophecying hardships he promised to take care of us.”

***

AP Writers Ben Nuckols, Seth Borenstein, Matthew Brown and Melissa Nelson contributed to this report. Anthony reported from New York.