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Coast Guard to BP: Speed up containment

The federal government has given BP 48 hours to find ways to speed up its efforts to contain huge amounts of oil gushing from a ruptured well into the Gulf of Mexico, according to a letter released Saturday.
Image: Dale Scheidemantle, center, and his children Josiah, left, and Faith walk near the oily surf in Orange Beach, Ala.
Dale Scheidemantle, center, and his children Josiah, left, and Faith walk near the oily surf in Orange Beach, Ala., Saturday.Dave Martin / AP
/ Source: news services

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.

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, reflects the administration's growing unease over the company's inability to stop the largest environmental disaster in U.S. history.

"Recognizing the complexity of this challenge, every effort must be expended to speed up the process," Coast Guard Rear Adm. James A. Watson wrote in the letter sent to Doug Suttles, BP's chief operating officer.

Also Saturday, Obama reassured Prime Minister David Cameron in a phone call that his vocal frustration over the oil spill is not an attack on Britain, where BP is based.

The petroleum giant has struggled with several efforts to contain the oil. The latest cap installed on the blown-out well is capturing about 650,000 gallons of oil a day, BP says, but large quantities are still spilling into the sea.

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 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 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," Watson said in the letter.

Suttles said BP will respond to the letter by Sunday night.

"We've got a team of people looking to see, can we accelerate some of the 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."

Obama, Cameron talk spill
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.

Cameron is under pressure from Britons to get Obama to tone down the criticism for fear it will hurt the millions of British retirees that hold BP stock, which has taken a beating.

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."

"President Obama said to the prime minister that his unequivocal view was that BP was a multinational global company and that frustrations about the oil spill had nothing to do with national identity," Cameron's office said in a statement.

"The prime minister stressed the economic importance of BP to the U.K., U.S. and other countries. The president made clear that he had no interest in undermining BP's value," it added.

Obama also told Cameron BP must pay "tens of thousands" of economic claims for the spill, an Obama administration official said.

"(Obama) said BP must meet its obligations to those whose lives have been disrupted and we will insist everything be done to cap the well, capture the oil, and pay for the cleanup, the environmental damage done and the tens of thousands of economic claims as a result of this disaster," the official said.

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.

Soiled sand
Meanwhile, waves of unsightly brown surf hit the Alabama shores in Orange Beach on Saturday, 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.

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.

A piece of wreckage from the deepsea rig that exploded has washed up on a beach in Florida about 190 miles from the site of the disaster.

Bay County Sheriff Deputy Ray Maulbeck was working beach patrol Saturday morning when he came upon the stainless steel tank that had some oil oozing from it, along with barnacles and sea growth attached to it. The Coast Guard and state environmental officials were called in to investigate, and they took the piece away.

Maulbeck said the part had markings that identified it as having come from the Deepwater Horizon rig.