The immense difficulties facing workers trying to contain and clean up the gulf oil leak were made frighteningly evident Wednesday, after a charter captain despondent over the spill apparently committed suicide, and technical issues forced oil company BP to remove the cap collecting some of the oil, sending thousands more of barrels of crude gushing into gulf waters.
The apparent suicide of the 55-year-old fishing captain, William Allen "Rookie" Kruse, was a grim reminder of the mental health toll that may haunt the Gulf of Mexico region for years as industries are damaged and estuaries are despoiled by the BP oil disaster.
"How can you deal with watching the oil kill every damn thing you ever lived for in your whole life?" said Ty Fleming, a land-bound charter captain who spoke Wednesday afternoon at the Undertow bar in Orange Beach, Ala.
Far out to sea at the site of the oil leak, the containment cap was lifted Wednesday morning after a robotic submarine bumped into it and closed an oil vent, raising fears that slushy hydrates might form under the cap, U.S. Coast Guard Rear Adm. Thad Allen said in a media briefing.
"Out of an abundance of caution…they moved the containment cap with the riser pipe and moved away so they can assess the condition," Allen said.
On Wednesday evening, BP was attempting to reinstall the cap. A smaller containment system with a capacity of 10,000 barrels a day was still working. A federal panel estimates the leak is gushing 35,000 to 60,000 barrels of oil a day into the gulf.
Allen said that if hydrates hadn't formed, workers would attempt to reinstall the cap, but that if hydrates were found, clearing the equipment and reinstalling the cap would take "a considerable amount longer."
Allen, the federal government's point man for the response, said Wednesday that even if the cap system was put back, rough seas from tropical weather systems might force workers to disengage it for a number of days.
A more hurricane-resistant system is being built. In the meantime, Allen said, the Discoverer Horizon ship collecting oil from the cap via a fixed pipe would need "six or seven days' advance notice to be able to evacuate."
"That means we're going to have to look at the tracks of these storms, look at the probabilities, and have to act very early on," he said.
That threat is ramping up as the heart of hurricane season approaches. AccuWeather.com hurricane expert Joe Bastardi warned Wednesday that a tropical storm could form in the region next week. One computer model projects a strengthening tropical cyclone moving toward Louisiana from the Caribbean.
"The tropics are bubbling and the lid is about to pop off for our first threat of the season," Bastardi said in a statement.
On the Alabama coast, friends remembered Kruse as a cheerful man who had left a good job at UPS years ago to pursue his dream of a life on the water.
He earned his nickname, "the Rookie," as a deckhand on a fishing boat in the 1960s. Although he had been a captain of his own boat for a couple of decades, his unflagging enthusiasm made the nickname apropos: A recording on his work phone announced in a bright, drawly voice that "the Rookie's ready to go now! Please leave me a message so we can go catch that big one!"
Charter Capt. Johnny Greene, a longtime friend, said that he spoke with Kruse in May, and that "he was very upbeat…talking about fisheries, hoping BP would get it shut off in the early part of May…so we could salvage some of our summer."
It was not to be. Kruse, like many gulf fisherman, hired on with BP; his 50-foot custom sport boat became part of a BP's cleanup and containment flotilla.
According to Stan Vinson, the Baldwin County, Ala., coroner, Kruse reported to work Wednesday morning at the Gulf Shores Marina in Gulf Shores, Ala. He met up with his two deckhands at his boat, also named the Rookie, then sent them off to fetch ice.
They heard a sound like a firecracker, but thought nothing of it. When they returned to the boat they found Kruse's lifeless body, with a gunshot wound to the head, in the captain's bridge above the wheelhouse. A Glock handgun was recovered from the scene; investigators do not suspect foul play, the coroner said.
Fleming said that it had to be the oil spill that weighed so heavily on Kruse. If the mental health toll after the Exxon Valdez in Alaska spill was any guide, Fleming said, they could expect more heartbreak along the coast in the months and years ahead.
"Did you check out what the boys did in Alaska—all the suicides and divorces?" he said. "Well, get ready for some more."
Amid the human tragedy, lawmakers continued to bicker. In Louisiana, the state government continued its brinksmanship with the federal government, violating its agreement regarding the construction of sand berms to protect the state's barrier islands from oil.
The federal government shut down the dredging project outside the Chandeleur Islands on Tuesday night because the state was taking sand from a sensitive area it had agreed to leave alone.
State officials say they needed to dredge in the area, east of the Mississippi River, because they didn't have enough pipe to move the material from the site approved by the Army Corps of Engineers.
Coastal scientists have complained that wholesale reconfiguring of the barrier island system would have negative consequences.
Louisiana Gov. Bobby Jindal, who has championed the project, said Wednesday that the time for studies was over. "We have jumped through every hoop that the federal government has placed in front of us since this spill started," he said.
In Washington, the House overwhelmingly approved a measure that would give subpoena power to the presidential commission investigating the rig explosion and spill.
Republicans supported the bill but attacked the Obama administration's plan to try to reinstitute a deep-water drilling moratorium struck down by a federal judge Tuesday.
"The last thing we need is the federal government adding to the disaster by crippling one of the largest economic drivers in my state," complained Rep. John Fleming (R-La.).Copyright © 2015, The Baltimore Sun