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May 4, 2010 / V A Nichols

Waiting, Watching, Preparations Continue

Alabama coastline gets reprieve from oil spill; work to stop leak continues
By Dan Murtaugh
May 04, 2010, 5:00AM

The Alabama coastline on Monday got another day’s reprieve from the massive oil spill in the Gulf of Mexico, with officials saying no oil will come ashore through Thursday morning.

BP PLC officials said they were continuing to take steps to stem the tide of crude coming from the Deepwater Horizon well.

The company also gave Alabama, Mississippi, Louisiana and Florida $25 million each so the states have cash in hand to pay cleanup workers and mitigation efforts, said Doug Suttles, the petroleum giant’s chief operating officer of exploration and production.

The company has said it will ultimately reimburse state, local and federal governments for “all necessary and appropriate cleanup costs.”

At least 210,000 gallons of oil a day is escaping a BP-owned well that was damaged when the deepwater drilling rig exploded last month. Eleven crew members died, and the spill is evolving into what many fear could be an ecological disaster along one of the most environmentally sensitive coastlines in the country.

BP worked Monday to place a valve over one of three leaks. Suttles said the company would know by today if that worked.

BP is also preparing to install custom-built containment centers over each leak. The 125-ton structures would cover the leaks, collecting oil that could then be pumped to a barge on the surface.

Similar efforts have worked, but such a system has not been used at the 5,000-foot depths in play with the current spill. The system could contain 85 percent of leaking oil and will take about a week to put in place, Suttles said.

Suttles said he was also hopeful that dispersants being applied underwater are breaking up the oil before it reaches the surface. He said the company would have a better idea of how well it’s working once new fly-over imagery is available. Bad weather has been hampering image collection.

Workers also continued drilling one of two relief wells — the ultimate answer to shutting down the flow of oil. But Suttles said any new well would take two or three months to reach the 18,000-foot depth required.

A BP official in Mobile briefly gave cause for hope Monday morning when he said the company had significantly reduced the flow of oil by shutting a set of hydraulic shears, known as annular rams.

But Suttles later said that employee was wrong, that the flow had not been reduced.

Alabama’s U.S. Sens. Richard Shelby, R-Tuscaloosa, and Jeff Sessions, R-Mobile, flew over the oil spill Monday with the U.S. Coast Guard, then met with reporters at Mobile Regional Airport.

“This has a potential to be the biggest disaster to hit this place in a long, long time,” Shelby said.

The senators reiterated that BP is the responsible party.

Sessions said his staff has researched the Oil Pollution Act of 1990 that passed after the Exxon Valdez spill in Alaska, which until now has always been the benchmark for spills in American waters.

Sessions contended that BP will be subject to fines of up to $75 million and that there is no limit to its liability for damages. Losses would have to be awarded through the normal legal process, he said.

While the oil hasn’t yet reached Alabama’s shores, some residents said Monday that they are starting to see the effects.

Dauphin Island resident Sherri Buzbee said she and her family came across at least five dead redfish, two dead ducks and another large bird she couldn’t identify during a Sunday walk along the beach,

“I was shocked,” Buzbee said, noting that she has never encountered more than a single dead bird or fish on her regular walks along the shoreline. The redfish were longer than 2 feet each, she said. “It was surreal.”

Bayou La Batre’s City Council on Monday afternoon declared a state of emergency related to the spill.

Carnival Cruise Line’s Fantasy docked as planned at the Alabama Cruise Terminal in Mobile and embarked on schedule Monday evening, said Vance Gulliksen, a Carnival spokesman. Carnival’s Triumph got in and out of New Orleans on Saturday as scheduled, he said.

Sheila Gurganus, the general manager of the Alabama Cruise Terminal, said customers did not mention any strange smells or experiences connected to the oil spill as they left the ship today.

Gulliksen said the ships might have altered course to stay away from the oil, but the reroute has not altered their schedules.

Mobile’s upcoming ship-swap will take place as scheduled May 15, Gulliksen said. That morning, the Fantasy will depart and go to its new home in Charleston, S.C., while the Elation will come to Mobile after a 14-day cruise from its former home in San Diego.

Plans haven’t changed for the Hangout Beach, Music & Arts Festival, scheduled for May 14-16 in Gulf Shores, festival founder Shaul Zislin said Monday.

“We’re in constant contact with the local and state authorities on this, and if anything changes, we will announce it,” he said. “Right now, there is no decision to cancel.”

The beachfront concert is planned in front of and adjacent to The Hangout, a bar and eatery at the heart of Gulf Shores owned by Zislin.

“Our No. 1 concern is the health and safety of the fans, the performers and the staff,” he said. “We will base all of our decisions on that criteria.”

(Staff Reporters Casandra Andrews, Rena Havner and Kathy Jumper contributed to this story.)

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