MIAMI — Much of the Gulf Coast from the Mississippi Delta to Florida’s Panhandle will be vulnerable to oil washing ashore and creeping inland to marshes and bays this week as booming and skimming operations likely will remain grounded through today due to Hurricane Alex, federal officials said.
The storm, which made landfall late Wednesday in northeastern Mexico, created seven-foot-high seas and winds between 17 and 22 knots in the northern Gulf Coast — conditions deemed too rough for the thousands of ships and miles of boom protecting shorelines from tar balls and oil sheens.
Winds and high surf also tore apart floating barriers shielding sensitive ecological areas, such as Barataria Bay and the Chandeleur Islands in southeastern Louisiana, and pushed booms onto beaches, rendering them useless.
U.S. Coast Guard Adm. Thad Allen, speaking to media on Wednesday, his last day in uniform before transitioning to a civilian role overseeing the federal response to the spill, said the storm had hampered a significant part of the response strategy: fighting back the oil before it reaches shore.
“The big focus of our operations right now would be on water skimming, trying to deal with the oil off shore as much as we can,” he said. But “you can’t get more than three- to five-feet seas and you start having not very good results with skimming and booming.”
Allen said forecasts for the northern Gulf Coast call for seas to be six feet or higher through late today, too high even for another method used to fight the spill offshore: burning in place.
What’s more, he said, a two- to three-foot storm surge from Alex likely would push oil inland, potentially to unanticipated places such as private homes, which could complicate clean-up efforts and the compensation of victims.
“We’re going to need some rules,” Allen said. “We have to define what’s oil-spill related and what’s hurricane damage. If oil from this spill is pushed inland, let’s say into a house as a result of the hurricane, that spill is legitimate damage from the oil spill and is subject to be paid.”
While the storm has halted response efforts along the coasts, it has not caused a suspension of long-term operations at the site of the Deepwater Horizon well head, about 41 miles off the Louisiana coast.
There, large ships are capturing oil from the gushing well and drilling relief wells that offer the best chance to top the flow permanently.
But the storm has delayed the launch of a new system that could double the amount of oil captured daily from the ruptured well to about 53,000 barrels a day.
Allen said the new system, which consists of a flexible pipe attached to a containment dome that will be lowered over the broken well and siphon oil to a waiting ship at the surface, is ready to go.
Crews just need seas to drop to three- to five-feet in order to bolt the hose to the ship, the Helix Producer.
“It’s dangerous to do that in anything but calm conditions,” Allen said. BP expects the new system will be operational on July 7 or 8.
Despite weather-related pauses, which mostly affected beach cleanings and privately owned ships contracted by oil giant BP to skim oil, lay boom and transport personnel, the massive response effort received a boost late Tuesday: 22 offers of assistance from 12 countries, including two high-speed skimmers and fire-containment boom from Japan, will be accepted.
Details of the offers, most of which require reimbursement, were not immediately available, including the method of delivery and timetable for their arrival.
Allen emphasized that U.S. maritime laws governing coastal shipping have not hindered the estimated 15 foreign-flagged vessels helping with the clean-up because those ships operate more than three miles from the coast.
“We at no time in the course of this response have been inhibited by anything having to do with what we call Jones Act or Jones Act waivers,” he said.
However, with the storm forcing many ships to seek safety, Allen said waivers may be necessary for foreign flagged ships that want to come to U.S. ports to ride out the weather.
A set of guidelines to expedite Jones Act waiver requests was announced on June 15, though it was unclear whether any had been granted as of Wednesday.
“Throughout this week we’ve been considering waivers for production vessels out there that are foreign flagged,” Allen said.
Meanwhile, Allen was scheduled to meet Wednesday afternoon with Interior Secretary Ken Salazar and Energy Secretary Steven Chu to review plans for four separate systems to capture as much as 60,000 barrels of oil a day from the ruptured well.
BP presently reports capturing about 24,000 barrels a day, using two separate methods: a containment dome attached to the ship, Discoverer Enterprise, via a fixed pipe that siphons oil to the surface; and a “choke line” from the failed blowout preventer that sends crude to a second ship, the Q4000.
The third system would be the containment dome and flexible hose attached to the Helix Producer, which has the capacity to collect 20,000 to 25,000 barrels a day.
Plans call for adding a second siphoning system to the blowout preventer choke line, and modifying the existing containment dome so two suction pipes can be attached to it.
Among the risks of the new plans is the likelihood that oil would gush freely from the well while crews worked to modify the systems.
Current projections estimate that the broken well is gushing 35,000 to 60,000 barrels per day.
Hoping to overcome a public perception of Gulf states swamped in oil, Florida Gov. Charlie Crist on Wednesday sent a letter to Doug Suttles, BP chief operating officer for exploration and production, requesting $50 million for a second round of tourism advertising.
Florida already has spent an earlier BP grant of $25 million for tourism advertising.