ORANGE BEACH, Ala. – The Coast Guard has demanded that BP step up its efforts to contain the oil gushing into the Gulf of Mexico by the end of the weekend, telling the British oil giant that its slow pace in stopping the spill is becoming increasingly alarming as the disaster fouled the coastline in ugly new ways Saturday.
The Coast Guard sent a testy letter to BP's chief operating officer that said the company urgently needs to pick up the pace and present a better plan to contain the spill by the time President Barack Obama arrives on Monday for his fourth visit to the beleaguered coast. The letter, released Saturday, follows nearly two months of tense relations between BP and the government and reflects the growing frustration over the company's inability to stop the largest environmental disaster in U.S. history.
The dispute escalated on the same day that ominous new signs of the tragedy emerged on the beaches of Alabama. Waves of unsightly brown surf hit the shores in Orange Beach, leaving stinking, dark piles of oil that dried in the hot sun and extended up to 12 feet from the water's edge for as far as the eye could see.
It was the worst hit yet to Alabama beaches. Tar-like globs have washed up periodically throughout the disaster, but Saturday's pollution was significantly worse.
"This is awful," said Shelley Booker of Shreveport, La., who was staying in a condominium with her teenage daughter and her friends near the deserted beach about 100 miles from the site of the spill.
Scientists have estimated that anywhere between about 40 million gallons to more than 100 million gallons of oil have spewed into the Gulf since a drilling rig exploded April 20, killing 11 workers. The latest cap installed on the blown-out well is capturing about 650,000 gallons of oil a day, but large quantities are still spilling into the sea.
The Coast Guard initially sent a letter to BP on Wednesday asking for more details on its plans to contain the oil. BP responded, saying a new system to trap much more oil should be complete by mid-July. That system's new design is meant to better withstand the force of hurricanes and could capture about 2 million gallons of oil daily when finished, the company said.
But Coast Guard Rear Adm. James A. Watson said in a follow-up letter Friday he was concerned that BP's plans were inadequate, especially in light of revised estimates this week that indicated the size of the spill could be up to twice as large as previously thought.
"BP must identify in the next 48 hours additional leak containment capacity that could be operationalized and expedited to avoid the continued discharge of oil ... Recognizing the complexity of this challenge, every effort must be expended to speed up the process," Watson said in the letter addressed to chief operating officer Doug Suttles.
Suttles said the company will respond to the letter by Sunday night.
"We've got a team of people looking to see, can we accelerate some items that are in that plan and is it possible to do more," Suttles said in a brief interview after speaking to workers at a command center where he thanked BP employees and contractors for their work in cleaning up the spill. "There are some real challenges to do that, including safety."
Suttles also acknowledged that "there's big frustrations out there. They're out there in the community, they're out there in government, they're out there everywhere. And I think they're all rooted in the fact that none of us want this to happen. And none of us want this to occur, and we all want it to get fixed now."
The letter and deadline come just before Obama is set to visit the Gulf Coast on Monday and Tuesday. On Saturday, Obama reassured British Prime Minister David Cameron that his frustration over the oil spill in the Gulf was not an attack on Britain.
The two leaders spoke by phone for 30 minutes Saturday. Cameron also has been under pressure to get Obama to tone down the criticism, fearing it will hurt the millions of British retirees holding BP stock that has taken a beating in recent weeks.
Cameron's office said the prime minister told Obama of his sadness at the disaster, while Obama said he recognized that BP was a multinational company and that his frustration "had nothing to do with national identity."
BP is hard at work trying to find new ways to capture more oil, but officials say the only way to permanently stop the spill is a relief well that will drill sideways into the broken well and plug it with cement.
Right now, a containment cap sitting over a well pipe is siphoning off around 653,100 gallons of oil to a ship the ocean surface. That oil is then unloaded to tankers and taken ashore.
To boost its capacity, BP also plans to trap oil using lines that earlier shot heavy drilling mud deep into the well during a failed attempt to stop the flow. This time, those lines will work in reverse. Oil and gas from the well will flow up to a semi-submersible drilling rig where it will be burned in a specialized boom that BP estimates can vaporize a maximum 420,000 gallons of oil daily. Another ship should be in place by mid-July to process even more oil.
News that the federal government had given BP until the end of the weekend to speed up the oil containment was met with raised eyebrows and long sighs as locals gathered to barbecue, drink Budweiser and listen to classic rock at a fishing benefit in Pointe a la Hache, La.
"I'll believe it when I see it," said Dominic Bazile, a firefighter.
On a Florida beach about 190 miles from the rig explosion, a stainless steel tank with markings that identified it as having come from the Deepwater Horizon washed up on shore. Bay County Sheriff Deputy Ray Maulbeck was working beach patrol Saturday when he came upon the wreckage. The Coast Guard and state environmental officials took the piece away.
Meanwhile, Gulf states affected by the disaster are putting the squeeze on BP, seeking to protect their interests amid talk of the possibility that BP may eventually file for bankruptcy.
The attorney general in Florida and the state treasurer in Louisiana want BP to put a total of $7.5 billion in escrow accounts to compensate the states and their residents for damages now and in the future. Alabama doesn't plan to take such action, while Mississippi and Texas haven't said what they will do.
As of the end of March, BP had only $6.8 billion in cash and cash equivalents available.
BP said in a statement that it is considering the Florida request. It didn't address the comments by the state treasurer in Louisiana.
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