Florida to try new methods for keeping oil from shore as Alex weakens

As the Atlantic's first tropical storm weakened to a depression, posing little threat to oil spill recovery efforts in the Gulf of Mexico, Florida Gov. Charlie Crist on Sunday announced two new efforts -- funded by oil giant BP -- to keep crude from the state's shores.

The first effort will begin with three barges, and could grow to as many as nine, configured in the shape of a boom to protect Destin Pass in the state's western panhandle. The barges would funnel the oil to an area where it can be skimmed.

Crist said he doesn't know when the state will receive the barges, but added that ``We keep asking for more, and as soon as we get more, we'll use it.''

The second effort involves creating an underwater ``air curtain'' of bubbles that would push oil from the depths to the surface.

Together, the two projects are expected to cost $500,000, which will be paid for by BP. The new efforts will be added to the state's ongoing response, which includes five skimmers operating in the western panhandle, and nearly 400,000 feet of boom placed along threatened shores.

Crist, who flew over the Panhandle Sunday afternoon, said he thought the beaches looked ``pretty good.''

``But seven miles out, we saw some pretty thick stuff,'' he said. ``By and large, the beach looked pretty clean this morning and that's the good news. So we have to stay on it. There's a tremendous increase in heavy equipment out there, and that's really a comfort.''

According to the Florida Department of Environmental Protection, which is leading the state response, tar balls, tar patties and sheen have been reported between Escambia and Walton counties in the northwest.

But no other part of the state has been affected by Deepwater Horizon-related oil, and easterly winds are projected to keep the crude from creeping east.

About 23 miles of Florida's coastline in Escambia County remains closed to fishing on Sunday, but state safety officials lifted health advisories issued on June 25 and 26 for the beaches of Fort Pickens and Johnson Beach.

As government agencies and private contractors worked to keep oil away from Florida's shores, BP issued an update Sunday on efforts to capture the crude gushing from the broken well pipes 5,000 feet below the surface of the Gulf.

Total oil recovered through midnight Saturday was 22,750 barrels, BP reported, collected through a ``top hat'' dome lowered over the broken well, and through a second containment system attached to the failed blow-out preventer.

BP also is drilling two relief wells that technicians hope will pierce and cap the gushing oil well. Drilling on the wells began in May and is expected to be complete in August.

``The relief wells continue on track and are making good progress,'' David Nicholas, a BP spokesman said Sunday.

Nicholas said BP already has located the point at which the relief wells will intercept the existing well, by using sensitive electronic equipment that detects differences in the rock's electromagnetic field.

Meanwhile, work on the relief wells, and the remainder of the massive response effort, faced little threat from Alex, the tropical storm downgraded to a depression on Sunday.

The storm passed over the Yucatan land mass early Sunday, weakening a bit but expected to restrengthen over the Gulf of Mexico, possibly into a weak Category 1 hurricane, said said Dave Roberts, a hurricane specialist at the National Hurricane Center in West Miami-Dade.

While the storm's westerly track likely will spare the oil recovery zone, weather systems can quickly change course. And it would take less than a hurricane, with sustained winds of 74 miles per hour or higher, to disrupt the massive response effort in the Gulf.

Winds in excess of 45 miles per hour could force at-sea workers to abandon their oil collection efforts for as long as two weeks, according to the head of the national response effort.

``At this point, it's not a threat to the site but we know these tracks can change,'' Coast Guard Adm. Thad Allen, the federal official overseeing the response, said in a conference call Saturday afternoon.

Under the threat of any storm, federal officials will suspend relief and clean-up efforts if gale force winds are projected to hit the disaster zone within five days. The time frame would give over 6,000 sea vessels, ranging from small private boats to large Coast Guard cutters and barges massed in the Gulf, time to make it back to land safely.

More than 38,000 people involved in disaster relief efforts would need to hunker down on land, at the same time hurricane response plans are carried out wherever the storm is slated to make landfall -- creating a logistical challenge for state and federal officials.

Among the vessels that would head for safety would be the drill ships Discover Enterprise and Q4000, key to the improvised oil system being used at the Deepwater Horizon disaster site to collects gushing crude.

An approaching storm would mean unplugging the ships attached to the makeshift ``top hat'' system for perhaps two weeks, conservatively unleashing another half-million barrels of oil into the sea -- twice the Exxon Valdez spill. Using upper-end federal estimates of the leak, 840,000 barrels would gush out. That's 35 million gallons.

Miami Herald Staff Writer Robert Samuels contributed to this report.