Special Reports

Coast Guard: Catastrophe will last ‘well into the fall’ (with photo galleries)

PENSACOLA — Though BP’s containment cap is now capturing an estimated hundreds of thousands of gallons of oil daily, the environmental catastrophe in the Gulf of Mexico will last “well into the fall,” the federal government’s oil-spill point-man said Sunday morning.

Coast Guard Adm. Thad Allen, in an appearance on CBS’s “Face The Nation,” said the containment cap’s success does not represent a stop to the spill — something he said can only be achieved when the deep-water gusher is fully cemented shut. That final closure can’t happen until the completion of a relief well that’s still months away.

“It’s not going to end soon,” Allen said. The needed relief well should be finished by August, but Allen said there will still be oil spread throughout the Gulf at that point — making the cleanup far from over even then.

“This is a siege across the entire Gulf,” Allen said.

Allen’s comments came as the white sand beaches of the Florida Panhandle continued to be fouled by scattered tarballs. Across the state, the fear was that damage to Florida’s precious coastline was poised to get much worse.

The federal fishing ban continues to creep deeper into Florida waters — expanding 565 square miles over the weekend to now include an area stretching from Pensacola to the outskirts of Panama City. Roughly one-third of all federal waters in the Gulf — more than 78,000 square miles — has been closed to fishermen.

In Pensacola, beachgoers spent the weekend carrying cameras, shovels and plastic bags to document the phenomenon and hunt for tar balls that have been splattering ashore since Friday.

After a series of torrential downpours Saturday night, the sun rose over Pensacola Beach on Sunday with what appeared to be fewer and smaller tar specks than the day before.

“It’s a lot better,” said Tonya Ryals of Nashville.

“Yesterday was horrible,” said her husband, Bo.

About a dozen people — including an Elvis impersonator — gathered at a Pensacola BP gas station to protest the company over the gushing spill.

Protesters were holding homemade signs that read “BP lies, Pensacola dies,” “Boycott Polluters” and “Bad for the Planet.”

The BP station, on the corner of Cervantes and Palafox streets, is privately, locally owned. Things briefly got tense when a person leaving the gas station in a white van turned to the protesters and blamed President Barack Obama for “playing golf” while the spill was going on. The protesters, in turn, questioned why the man was filling up at the gas station.

“I’m sure not going to cut off the people who are going to pay the claims,” he said before Pensacola police arrived at the station and asked protesters to remain on the sidewalk.

The Elvis impersonator, who said he was at the protest to promote his singing services, held a sign that read: “This BP station is locally owned. Be kind.”

U.S. Sen. Bill Nelson, a Florida Democrat, minimized the damage to Sunshine State beaches in his own appearance on “Face The Nation,” saying that, so far, the visibility of oil in the Panhandle “wasn’t that bad.”

But the economic fallout from worried tourists is widespread, Nelson said.

“They’re canceling their fishing trips, they’re cancelling their hotels, they’re not going into the restaurants because they’re not coming,” Nelson said.

In spite of the tarballs and oil sheens, officials from the Department of Environmental Protection said beaches, the jewel of Florida’s tourism industry, will remain open and occasional contact with small amounts of oil won’t harm beachgoers.

Florida Gov. Charlie Crist has said he would ask for more oil-containment booms to keep the spill off Florida’s shore, but during a Sunday interview with CNN, Crist stressed that it is bays and estuaries that will need the most protection.

“People don’t like to hear this, but the beaches are some of the best boom that can be available,” Crist said. “It is easier to clean up off the beaches.”

Asked if BP’s claims process for affected Florida businesses has been “lacking,” Crist responded: “Well, it is lacking. I mean, I think they are trying to do the best they can. But they can always do better. And we are urging them to do better ... we are demanding that they do better.”

According to Darryl Willis, the senior claims officer for BP America who was visiting Pensacola on Sunday, the company has opened 25 spill-related claims offices — 10 of them in Florida. They have 515 claims adjusters and 120 people answering the phones. Thirty-seven thousand individual claims have been filed along coastal states, and 18,000 of them have been paid out, to the tune of $48 million.

Those individual claims are for relatively modest amounts — for up to $5,000 in losses. Businesses and local governments can also file claims for larger amounts up to $500,000. BP has received 1,000 of those claims since the process began June 1, Willis said, about half of them from Florida. Ten claims have been paid, all in Alabama and Louisiana.

Somewhere between 22 million and 47 million gallons of oil have spilled into the Gulf since the April 20 blast aboard BP’s Deepwater Horizon oil rig, which killed 11 people.

BP’s latest containment cap, which looks similar to a large upside-down funnel, is capturing an unknown amount of the oil that continues to spew underground.

On Sunday, BP Chief Executive Officer Tony Hayward told the BBC that he believed the cap was likely to capture “the majority, probably the vast majority” of the gushing oil.

The Coast Guard’s Allen, however, said it is too soon to measure the cap’s success. The brunt of the oil disaster has devastated southern Louisiana, where oil has slicked or killed dozens of birds, including endangered brown pelicans. It has also ravaged marshland and crippled the state’s fishing industry.

Related stories from Bradenton Herald