Alabama's beaches took their worst hit yet from an oil spill in the Gulf of Mexico on Saturday as globs of crude and gooey tar — some the size of pancakes — lined the white sands and crews worked to try to keep a giant oil sheen just a few miles away from reaching the shore.
Scientists have estimated that anywhere between about 40 million gallons to 109 million gallons of oil have gushed into the Gulf since a drilling rig exploded April 20, killing 11 workers and triggering the worst oil spill in U.S. history.
The oil washing up on Alabama's shores was the heaviest since the rig explosion and came just as the summer beach season was picking up.
During a flight over the Gulf, Sean Brumley, an aerial spotter, said he saw an oily sheen and brown patches of oil floating for miles off the Alabama coast. Boats trying to remove the oil before it hit the coast worked about three miles out.
"The Gulf looks like it has chicken pox," Brumley said.
The oily sheen covered the pass leading into Perdido Bay near the Alabama-Florida state lines. Globs of brown oil floated in the still water at a marina despite miles of boom that were meant to prevent oil from reaching inshore waters.
Tony Tingle, of Trussville, said it was even worse the evening before.
"It was actually crude oil, not tar balls. All the cleaning crews flooded in. The skimming boats came in pretty quickly, helicopters were circling, and a bunch of boats came in. It smelled like a machine shop," Tingle said.
The beaches in Florida's Panhandle were largely free of tar early Saturday — but signs of the fight against the spill were everywhere. Officials have said that two wide sections of the slick were just off the shoreline.
The slow movement of the oil and constant preparations for its arrival were taking toll on beach residents.
"It's like waiting for someone to die from cancer," said Greg Hall, who walks the beach each morning.
Coast Guard Adm. Thad Allen, the Obama administration's point man for the oil spill, said that since the leak began, 4 million gallons of crude have been siphoned off the ruptured well using tubes and caps. An additional 18 million gallons have been skimmed from the ocean surface, he said. The skimmed liquid is generally only 10 to 15 percent oil.
BP has said it plans to boost its ability to directly capture oil gushing from the well by early next week. A semi-submersible drilling rig would capture and burn up to 420,000 gallons of oil daily. Once on board, the oil and gas collected from the well will be sent down a boom and burned at sea.
A drill ship already at the scene can process a maximum of 756,000 gallons of oil daily that's sucked up through a containment cap sitting on the well head.
Federal officials are still reviewing BP's plan to build a new containment system designed to capture more oil and be more durable during hurricane season. Allen said the plan could be revised based on calculations of how much oil is spilling from the well.
BP announced earlier this month it will donate its share of the proceeds generated by selling the oil captured from the well to fund efforts to protect and restore wildlife habitat along the Gulf Coast.
The company has not released specifics on how the fund will work and said it doesn't know how much money might be raised. But once the oil is brought to shore, it will creep into the world's economic supply chain unnoticed by consumers.
The oil could end up in a wide array of fuels and products including gasoline, diesel, heating oil, asphalt and plastic — including the bags used at grocery stores, the cases for cell phones and microwaves.
"Oil is oil," said Julius Langlinais, professor emeritus of petroleum engineering at Louisiana State University. "There's no stamp or anything on it. It's all the same molecules."
Negotiations were still ongoing Friday to find a buyer for all that captured oil, BP spokesman Mark Proegler said.
It's unclear how much the captured oil will be worth once it's sold. Oil was trading around $74 a barrel Friday, but BP officials said they expect to get a lower price than normal because the oil captured from the leak is laced with methanol.BP is injecting methanol as an antifreeze into the inside of the containment cap sitting over the gushing well to prevent the buildup of an ice-like slush that can clog the pipes.
Reeves reported from Orange Beach, Ala.; Henry from New Orleans. Associated Press Writer Melissa Nelson in Pensacola Beach, Fla., contributed to this report.
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