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BP Spill Nears A Somber Record As Gulf's Biggest

MexicoBP PlcEnvironmental PollutionPetroleum IndustryWater Pollution

BP's massive oil spill will become thelargest ever in the Gulf of Mexico by Thursday based on the highestof the federal government's estimates, an ominous record thatunderscores the oil giant's dire need to halt the gusher.

The oil that's spewed for two and a half months from a blown-outwell a mile under the sea is expected to surpass the 140 milliongallon mark, eclipsing the record-setting Ixtoc I spill off

Mexico's coast from 1979 to 1980. Even by the lower end of thegovernment's estimates, at least 71.2 million gallons are in theGulf.

The growing total is crucial to track, in part because GreatBritain-based BP PLC is likely to be fined per gallon spilled, saidLarry McKinney, director of Texas A&M University at CorpusChristi's Gulf of Mexico research institute.

"It's an important number to know because it has an impact onrestoration and recovery," McKinney said.

The oil calculation is based on the higher end of thegovernment's range of barrels leaked per day, minus the amount BPsays it has collected from the blown-out well using two containmentsystems. Measuring it helps scientists figure out where the missingoil is, hidden below the water surface with some even stuck to theseafloor. Oil not at the surface damages different parts of theecosystem.

"It's a mind-boggling number any way you cut it," said EdOverton, a Louisiana State University environmental studiesprofessor who consults for the federal government on oil spills."It'll be well beyond Ixtoc by the time it's finished."

And passing Ixtoc just before the July Fourth weekend, a time ofnormally booming tourism, is bitter timing, he said.

The BP spill, which began after the Deepwater Horizon drillingrig explosion killed 11 workers April 20, is also the largest spillever recorded offshore during peacetime.

But it's not the biggest in history.

That happened when Iraqi forces opened valves at a terminal anddumped about 460 million gallons of oil in 1991 during the PersianGulf war.

As the Gulf gusher neared the record, Hurricane Alex whippedoil-filled waves onto the Gulf Coast's once-white beaches. Thegovernment has pinned its latest cleanup hopes on a huge new pieceof equipment: the world's largest oil-skimming vessel, whicharrived Wednesday.

Officials hope the ship can scoop up to 21 million gallons ofoil-fouled water a day. Dubbed the "A Whale," theTaiwanese-flagged former tanker spans the length of 3½ footballfields and is 10 stories high.

It just emerged from an extensive retrofitting to prepare itspecifically for the Gulf.

"It is absolutely gigantic. It's unbelievable," said Overton,who saw the ship last week in Norfolk, Va.

The vessel looks like a typical tanker, but it takes incontaminated water through 12 vents on either side of the bow. Theoil is then supposed to be separated from the water and transferredto another vessel. The water is channeled back into the sea.

But the ship's never been tested, and many questions remainabout how it will operate. For instance, the seawater retains traceamounts of oil, even after getting filtered, so the EnvironmentalProtection Agency will have to sign off on allowing the treatedwater back into the Gulf.

"This is a no-brainer," Overton said. "You're bringing inreally dirty, oily water and you're putting back much cleanerwater."

The Coast Guard will have the final say in whether the vesselcan operate in the Gulf. The owner, shipping firm TMT Group, willhave to come to separate terms with BP, which is paying for thecleanup.

"I don't know whether it's going to work or not, but itcertainly needs to be given the opportunity," Overton said.

Meanwhile along parts of the Gulf, red flags snapped in stronggusts, warning people to stay out of the water, and long stretchesof beach were stained brown from tar balls and crude oil that hadbeen pushed as far as 60 yards from the water.

Hurricane Alex churned up rough seas as it plowed across theGulf, dealing a tough setback to cleanup operations. It madelandfall along a relatively unpopulated stretch of coast inMexico's northern Tamaulipas state late Wednesday, spawningtornadoes in nearby Texas and forcing evacuations in bothcountries.

Oil deposits appeared worse than in past days and localofficials feared the temporary halt to skimming operations near thecoast would only make matters worse ahead of the holiday weekend.

"I'm real worried about what is going to happen with thoseboats not running. It can't help," said Tony Kennon, mayor ofOrange Beach, Ala.

Although skimming operations and the laying of oil-corrallingbooms were halted across the Gulf, vessels that collect and burnoil and gas at the site of the explosion were still operating.Efforts to drill relief wells that experts hope will stop the leakalso continued unabated.

In Florida, lumps of tar the size of dinner plates filled alarge swath of beach east of Pensacola after rough waves tossed themess onto shore.

Streaks of the rust-red oil could be seen in the waves offPensacola Beach as cleanup crews worked in the rough weather toprepare the beach for the holiday weekend.

In Grand Isle, La., heavy bands of rain pounded down, keepingcleanup crews off the water and tossing carefully laid boom around.However, oil had stayed out of the passes.

"All this wave action is breaking up the oil very quickly,"Coast Guard Cmdr. Randal S. Ogrydziak said. "Mother Nature isdoing what she does best, putting things back in order."

Natural microbes in the water were also working on the spill.The result was a white substance that looked like mayonnaise, thatwashed up on some spots along the Grand Isle beach.

"People will be fishing here again," Ogrydziak said. "It maytake a while, but people may be surprised that it's not taking aslong as they thought. Look at the (Ixtoc) oil spill in Mexico. Itwas massive and now people are back to using those waters."

Copyright © 2014, The Baltimore Sun
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