Oil diversion to ship offers hope amid growing concerns over wildlife
NEW ORLEANS — The increased flow of oil diverted from a blown well onto a waiting ship offered a glimmer of hope that the spill in the Gulf of Mexico was slowly being contained, but there were growing concerns Sunday as resources to protect the coastline were stretched thin and wildlife casualty numbers mounted.
The number of birds picked up by wildlife rescue workers in five Gulf states jumped Sunday by nearly 100 from Saturday's toll. Of the 820 birds found so far, 597 have been dead, and all 223 found alive have been visibly oiled. For the first time, oiled birds showed up in Texas, underscoring Coast Guard Adm. Thad Allen's warning that the massive spill had splintered into "literally hundreds of thousands" of smaller slicks being pushed in different directions by winds and currents.
"Yesterday and today, it has really hit home," said Larry Arbanas, part of a team from Cornell's Lab of Ornithology that has been in Louisiana for 8 days documenting damage to wildlife.
In Alabama, oil washed onto Orange Beach's white sand after a boom broke and no skimmer was immediately available.
Florida Gov. Charlie Crist said he was setting up a task force of top lawyers to be prepared to demand additional compensation from BP "when that becomes necessary. And we are pretty certain that it will," Crist said in a CNN interview.
While Crist said that so far all of his requests for equipment to fight the encroaching oil had been met, but conceded that demand for skimmer boats and booms was bound to increase with oil encroaching on five states.
Allen also warned that shortfalls were likely: "Frankly, the further this gets disaggregated from west to east, it's going to create a continual demand, so there will always be an unmet demand for skimming capability, in my view," he told ABC's "This Week." Each slick can be anywhere from dozens of yards to several miles wide, he added.
Allen also said that even though the amount of oil pumped upward had increased, he would not agree with BP's senior vice president, Bob Fryar, who said Saturday that he was "very pleased" with the progress.
BP said Sunday it had diverted 10,500 barrels of oil — 441,000 gallons — to the surface since Saturday, compared to 6,000 barrels the day before.
"Nobody should be pleased" until relief wells designed to stop the spill are finished, sometime in August, said Allen, speaking on CNN's "State of the Union." In the meantime, he said, the spill remains "an insidious enemy that is attacking all of our shores. It's holding the Gulf hostage, basically."
Nearly seven weeks after the blast that caused the nation's worst oil spill, estimates of the amount of crude gushing from the damaged well remain unknown. A government panel has estimated the leak at 12,000 to 19,000 barrels a day, roughly a half-million to nearly 800,000 gallons. By that measure, BP's cap could be diverting 55 percent to 88 percent of the spill.
But live video of billowing clouds of oil escaping from the cap provoked Rep. Ed Markey, D-Mass., to demand better disclosure of the flow Sunday. "At this time, BP appears to know how much oil is being captured, which is encouraging," Markey wrote in a letter to BP America CEO Lamar McKay. "Yet BP still does not appear to know precisely how much oil is actually escaping, which is discouraging."
It also is unclear how much spillage will be contained once the vents on the containment cap atop the well's blowout preventer are closed. The vents are slowly being shut, a process that Allen says must be done gradually to avoid putting too much pressure on the cap.
Wildlife officials, meanwhile, battled the leading edge of the oil surge on tourist destinations of Florida's panhandle and isolated barrier islands that provide shelter to nesting birds and sea turtles. National Park Service officials were responding to tar balls and mats of oil washing up along the shoreline in parts of Gulf Island National Seashore, a string of barrier islands off the coasts of Mississippi and Florida. In addition, Alabama's Dauphin Island, which is part of the barrier island chain but not part of the National Seashore, has been hit with oil.
Joan Anzelmo of the park service on Sunday confirmed that Horn and Petit Bois islands in Mississippi, and Perdido Key, Fort Pickens and Opal Beach in Florida also had oil. All of the national parks on the Gulf remained open. But she said parks officials were preparing for oil landfall at eight national parks along the Gulf.
Petit Bois and Horn Islands are all the more precious to Mississippi because, along with a small tract of forest land, they represent the only wilderness in the state. "That's it, that's all we've got," said Louie Miller of the Sierra Club. "Those islands are unique to the northern Gulf and in pristine condition."
Petit Bois is one of the last undeveloped barrier islands in the Gulf or Atlantic.
The latest tallies of wildlife collected showed a sharp jump, particularly in Louisiana, where the number of birds collected, both dead and alive, went from 358 to 404 from Saturday to Sunday. There have been 70 sea turtles picked up in the state, 66 of them dead. The number of reptiles, birds, turtles and mammals such as dolphins collected along the Gulf stood at 1,143 Sunday, 107 more than the previous day. In Texas, 46 dead birds were picked up, the first wildlife casualty report from that state.
The three-member Cornell team, which arrived on East Grand Terre Island Sunday at sunrise, quickly spotted a young herring gull whose white breast feathers had turned to orange. The gull appeared in relatively good shape, team members said, but added that lightly oiled birds often are most at risk, because they are difficult to catch and treat.
Benjamin Clock crossed the deserted island to the beach, where he spotted something barely moving under a large patch of oil. It was a snake, unrecognizable beneath its coat of oil except for its flickering tongue. The team watched as the reptile, its tail stuck in the slick, struggled to free itself. Just when it seemed on the verge of escape, a wave washed it back into the tar pit.
Biologist Marc Dantzker lifted the snake with a stick and carried it by hand to clean sand on the shore, where it wriggled for several minutes before heading toward grass in the middle of the island.
The team also came upon what looked like a dead snowy egret, unrecognizable in its oily grave. "It looked like a bird fossil, an imprint of a bird in muck. It was awful," said Dantzker, who believes that "only a fraction" of dead birds have been found. He called wildlife rescue teams to alert them to the day's findings, which included a heavily oiled pelican still alive on the shore.
Later, rescue workers arrived and quickly plucked the pelican from the sand and took it to a rehabilitation center to be cleaned and eventually released back into the wild in Florida.