Image: Test burn of oil
Elastec/American Marine
Oil is set on fire in a test burn last week in the Gulf of Mexico. The test used what is called a fire boom, basically a fireproof material that can be reused.
NBC, msnbc.com and news services
updated 5/3/2010 7:40:13 PM ET 2010-05-03T23:40:13

As the Gulf Coast oil spill response team scrambled on Monday to get special fire booms to corral and then burn the slick, key questions surfaced: Were any of those booms even in the area? And if not, should they have been, given a 1994 plan produced for federal agencies to deal with such a scenario?

The Coast Guard did not immediately respond to phone calls by msnbc.com about whether spill response plans required having fire booms nearby. The Press-Register of Mobile, Ala., reported Monday that no booms were available immediately after the Deepwater Horizon rig sank and started leaking oil on April 22.

A few days later, the Coast Guard said it would test burning oil, and did so on April 28. The test went well but rough weather that followed shelved plans for a large-scale burn.

Ron Gouguet, who helped devise the 1994 plan for responding to oil spills when he worked for the federal National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration, told msnbc.com that there's nothing novel about the booms.

"The technology was tested in the (Exxon) Valdez spill in 1989 and used in Texas in the San Jacinto spill in 1994," he said. "Several versions of the booms were available in 1994" when his team's plan was approved.

Video: Latest from the coast Elastec/American Marine, a company that provided the fire boom for the test burn last week, said it received an order last Monday but only had one of its patented Fire-Hydro booms in stock. That's being rushed to the spill site and six more are being rounded up, some from Brazil. Each can cost $100,000 or more.

Jeff Bohleber, chief financial officer for Elastec/American Marine, told msnbc.com that he thinks a key lesson learned from the disaster will be that fire booms should not be seen as experimental or as secondary tools.

"I believe in the end analysis, after this is all done, that they will find that the Hydro-Fire boom will likely be a tool of first response," he said. "It provides the disposal of the largest amount of oil in the shortest amount of time."

What's there now "is probably not enough" given the size of spill, he added. "The more you have on hand the better off you'll be."

BP: 'Wasn't our accident'
Federal officials and oil giant BP, which was having the well drilled when it exploded, are now focusing on trying to contain the leaks with huge domes, then drill a relief well within three months.

Video: CEO interview Facing an unprecedented environmental disaster along the Gulf Coast, not to mention lawsuits, BP told NBC on Monday that while it was taking responsibility for the cleanup, the accident that triggered the disaster was not its fault.

"It wasn't our accident, but we are absolutely responsible for the oil, for cleaning it up, and that's what we intend to do," BP Group CEO Tony Hayward told NBC's "TODAY" show.

The rig that exploded on April 20 and then sank was run by another company, Transocean, he reminded viewers. That rig, he said, "was run by their people, their processes."

Hayward added that the failure of the rig's "blow-out preventer" — a device that should have shut off the well when the rig exploded and sank — was "unprecedented in our industry."

"What has failed here is the ultimate safety device on a drilling rig," he said. "There are many barriers of protection that you have to go to before you get to this. It isn't designed to not fail."

Video: Bird migrations at risk? Guy Cantwell, a Transocean spokesman, responded by reading a statement without elaborating. "We will await all the facts before drawing conclusions and we will not speculate," he said.

A federal board investigating what caused the accident plans to hold its first public hearing in about two weeks, officials said Monday.

BP was trying to cap the smallest of three leaks with underwater robotic vehicles in the hope it will make it easier to place a single oil-siphoning container over the wreck.

One of the robots cut the damaged end off a pipe at the smallest leak Sunday and officials were hoping to cap it with a sleeve and valve, Coast Guard spokesman Brandon Blackwell said Monday. He did not know how much oil was coming from that leak.

"We see this as an opportunity to simplify the seafloor mission a little bit, so we're working this aggressively," BP spokesman Steve Rinehart said.

The first container, or dome, is seven to eight days from being "in the field," Hayward said. Such a procedure has been used in some well blowouts but never at the mile-deep waters of this disaster.

That is just a temporary fix until a relief well can be drilled to plug the leaks, and that could take two to three months, Hayward said.

'Not a spill, it's a flow'
Crews continued to place oil booms in what increasingly feels like a futile effort to slow down the spill, though choppy seas have made that difficult and rendered much of the oil-corraling gear useless.

"I've been in Pensacola and I am very, very concerned about this filth in the Gulf of Mexico," Florida Gov. Charlie Crist said Sunday night. "It's not a spill, it's a flow. Envision sort of an underground volcano of oil and it keeps spewing over 200,000 gallons every single day, if not more."

Video: Shrimpers: ‘This is our living’ That estimate could climb to several million gallons a day in the event of a total wellhead failure — a much greater breach than exists now.

Fishermen from the mouth of the Mississippi River to the Florida Panhandle got the news Sunday that more than 6,800 square miles of federal fishing areas were closed, fracturing their livelihood for at least 10 days and likely more just as the prime spring season was kicking in.

The slick also was precariously close to a key shipping lane that feeds goods and materials to the interior of the U.S. by the Mississippi River.

Ships carrying food, oil, rubber and much more come through the Southwest Pass to enter the vital waterway.

Shipment delays — either because oil-splattered ships need to be cleaned off at sea before docking or because water lanes are shut down for a time — would raise the cost of transporting those goods.

"We saw that during Hurricane Katrina for a period of time — we saw some prices go up for food and other goods because they couldn't move some fruit down the shipping channels and it got spoiled," PFGBest analyst Phil Flynn said.

About the only good news Monday was that the slick was in a "holding pattern" and not moving closer to shore for now, Adm. Thad Allen, the Coast Guard commandant, told msnbc.

Figuring claims, cleanup payments
U.S. officials, meanwhile, are pressing BP to clarify how the company will cover costs relating to the Gulf oil spill.

Slideshow: Oil disaster Homeland Security Secretary Janet Napolitano says reimbursement for individuals and state and federal government will be on the agenda when she and Interior Secretary Ken Salazar meet with Hayward and other BP executives in Washington later Monday.

She told ABC's "Good Morning America" that the Obama administration wants to make sure there is a clear claims process set up for proper reimbursement. She also wants BP to stop requiring those volunteering with the cleanup to sign waivers limiting the company's liability.

Meanwhile, in a fact sheet posted to the company's website on Monday, BP said it "will pay all necessary and appropriate clean-up cost" as well as "legitimate and objectively verifiable" claims for property damage, personal injury, and commercial losses. It pledged that claims will be "promptly investigated" and that resolved claims would be paid promptly.

Another potential hazard was a political one that depends on how the public judges the Obama administration's response. In 2005, President George W. Bush stumbled in dealing with Hurricane Katrina in the Gulf and left the impression of a president distant from immense suffering. His presidency never recovered.

Administration officials said they were on top of the accident from the first day. A declaration of national significance — opening the way for greater government involvement — came nine days later, when a new leak was discovered and it was determined that far more oil was leaking from the site than initially estimated.

Obama's visit to the region
On Sunday, President Barack Obama traveled to southeastern Louisiana to reassure fishermen and others on the Gulf Coast that the government is doing all it can as masses of oil from a pipeline rupture endanger fisheries, oyster beds and beaches.

"Your government will do whatever it takes for as long as it takes to stop this crisis," Obama said. "We're dealing with a massive and potentially unprecedented environmental disaster."

Obama took a brief helicopter tour to view the kinds of marshlands and estuaries threatened by the spill. High winds prevented him from flying over the 30-mile spill itself.

The leaking oil imperils not only the environment but an abundant fishing industry, which Obama called "the heartbeat of the region's economic life." In front of a cabin and recreational vehicle park was a plywood sign pleading, "Obama Send Help!!!!"

"We're going to do everything in our power to protect our natural resources, compensate those who have been harmed, rebuild what has been damaged and help this region persevere like it has done so many times before," Obama said.

It appeared little could be done in the short term to stem the oil flow, which was also drifting toward the beaches of neighboring Mississippi and farther east along the Florida Panhandle. Obama said the slick was 9 miles off the southeastern Louisiana coast.

Politics of the disaster
An investigation is under way into the cause of the April 20 well explosion and, depending on its outcome, questions may be raised about whether federal regulation of offshore rigs operating in extremely deep waters is sufficient and whether the government is requiring the best available technology to shut off such wells in event of a blowout.

Administration officials have been at pains to explain that Obama's late March decision to expand offshore oil exploration could be altered as a result of the spill and that stricter safety rules would doubtless be written into leases.

In reality, oil companies and the government lack the technology to prevent the damage from a well gushing oil, killing wildlife and tainting a delicate ecosystem.

Slideshow: Wildlife threatened Even if the oil stays mostly offshore, the consequences could be dire for sea turtles, dolphins and other deepwater marine life — and microscopic plankton and tiny creatures that are a staple of larger animals' diets.

Moby Solangi, director of the Institute for Marine Mammal Studies in Gulfport, Miss., said at least 20 dead sea turtles were found on the state's beaches. He said it's too soon to say whether oil contamination killed them but that it is unusual to have them turning up across such a wide stretch of coast, nearly 30 miles.

Some experts also have said oil could get into the Gulf Stream and flow to the beaches of Florida — and potentially whip around the state's southern tip and up the Eastern Seaboard. Tourist-magnet beaches and countless wildlife could be ruined.

msnbc.com's Miguel Llanos as well as The Associated Press contributed to this report.

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