Gulf beaches hit as distant hurricane pushes oil

Published 12:00 am Thursday, July 1, 2010

GRAND ISLE, La. (AP) — Rough seas generated by Hurricane Alex pushed more oil from the massive spill onto Gulf Coast beaches Wednesday as cleanup vessels were sidelined by the faraway storm’s ripple effects.

The hurricane was churning coastal waters across the oil-affected region on the Gulf of Mexico. Six-foot waves and 25 mph winds were forecast through Thursday just offshore from the Mississippi Delta in Louisiana to the Florida Panhandle.

In Louisiana, the storm pushed an oil patch toward Grand Isle and uninhabited Elmer’s Island, dumping tar balls as big as apples on the beach. Cleanup workers were kept at bay by pouring rain and lightning that zigzagged across the dark sky. Boom lining the beach had been tossed about, and it couldn’t be put back in place until the weather cleared.

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‘‘The sad thing is that it’s been about three weeks since we had any big oil come in here,’’ marine science technician Michael Malone said. ‘‘With this weather, we lost all the progress we made.’’

The loss of dozens of skimmers, combined with gusts driving water into the coast, left beaches especially vulnerable.

Large waves churned up by Hurricane Alex left Alabama beaches splattered with oil and tar balls Wednesday, even with Alex more than 500 miles away as it approached the Texas-Mexico coast. Long stretches were stained brown as far as 60 yards from the edge of the water.

Oil deposits appeared worse than in past days, and local officials feared the slowdown would make matters worse as tourists come to the beach for the July Fourth holiday.

‘‘I’m real worried about what is going to happen with those boats not running. It can’t help,’’ said Orange Beach Mayor Tony Kennon.

The nasty weather will likely linger in the Gulf through Thursday, National Weather Service meteorologist Brian LaMarre said.

In Florida, tar lumps the size of dinner plates filled a large swath of beach east of Pensacola in Navarre Beach after rough waves brought the mess ashore. Wind and rain kept crews from cleaning the crude.

‘‘The weather has hampered the cleanup. Our night crews went out there to try and verify exactly how much it was and it’s about half a mile,’’ said Santa Rosa County spokeswoman Joy Tsubooka.

She said cleanup crews would work throughout the day Wednesday, but lightning and rain from expected thunderstorms could slow the work.

Officials scrambled to reposition boom to protect the coast and had to remove barges barricading oil from sensitive wetlands. Those operations could soon get a boost. The U.S. accepted offers of help from 12 countries and international organizations. Japan, for instance, was sending two skimmers and boom.

Alex is projected to stay far from the spill zone off the Louisiana coast. It is not expected to affect work at the site of the blown-out well. But the storm’s outer edges complicated the cleanup.

Early Wednesday, Alex had maximum sustained winds near 80 mph (130 kph). The National Hurricane Center said the Category 1 storm is the first June Atlantic hurricane since 1995. It is on track for the Texas-Mexico border region and expected to make landfall Wednesday night.

As Alex approached, skimming efforts off the coasts of Louisiana, Florida, Alabama and Mississippi had mostly stopped.

BP’s disaster response plan for a spill didn’t mention hurricanes or tropical storms, Rep. Edward Markey, D-Mass., said Wednesday during a congressional hearing. He said the omission is yet another example of what the oil giant was not prepared to handle.

At the main staging area for oil cleanup efforts around Grand Isle, stacks of boom, bottled water, ice chests and cleaning materials stood ready to load up when the work restarted.

Brothers Otis and Vahn Butler of Houma got jobs there just three days ago.

‘‘We’ve been steady busy until today,’’ Otis Butler said Tuesday. ‘‘Now we’re mostly standing around and looking around. We just find things to do when we can today. But once this is over, I bet we’ll be twice as busy.’’

The rough seas and winds aren’t all bad, though — scientists have said they could help break apart the oil and make it evaporate faster.

The wave action, combined with dispersants sprayed by the Coast Guard, have helped break a 6-by-30-mile oil patch into smaller patches, Coast Guard Cmdr. Joe Higgens said.

Jefferson Parish Council member Chris Roberts said the oil was entering passes Tuesday at Barataria Bay, home to diverse wildlife. A day earlier, barges that had been placed in the bay to block the oil were removed because of rough seas. Boom was being displaced and had to be repositioned, he said in an e-mail.

The Bureau of Ocean Energy Management, Regulation, and Enforcement — formerly the Minerals Management Service said 28 platforms and three rigs in the path of the storm in the western Gulf have been evacuated.

Still in the water are vessels being used to capture or burn spewing oil and gas and those drilling relief wells that officials say are the best hope for stopping the leak for good.

A third vessel that would ramp up how much oil is being captured or burned was delayed by the weather, said the government’s point man for the spill, Coast Guard Adm. Thad Allen. It was expected to be done this week, but now won’t be online until next week.

Hurricane warnings were posted for parts of the coast along Mexico and Texas. Except for the border area itself, though, most of the warning area is lightly populated.

So far, between 70.8 million gallons and 137.6 million of oil have spewed into the Gulf from the broken BP well, according to government and BP estimates. The higher estimate is enough oil to fill half of New York’s Empire State Building with oil.