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Gulf Coast Awaits Results Of Efforts To Break Up Slick

Calm seas along the Gulf Coast on Tuesday allowed cleanup crews working to fight the oil gushing from the well a mile below the surface to put out more containment equipment and repair some booms damaged in rough weather over the weekend.

An expected improvement in the weather may also allow the use of controlled burns to reduce some of the slick.

A Coast Guard official said forecasts showed the oil wasn't expected to come ashore until as early as Thursday.

"It's a gift of a little bit of time. I'm not resting," U.S. Coast Guard Rear Adm. Mary Landry said.

Near Port Fourchon, southwest of New Orleans, workers for contractor Wild Well Control were busy welding and painting a massive containment device that BP spokesman John Curry said would be deployed on the seabed by Thursday.

Meanwhile, BP continued to dump chemicals onto the massive oil slick in an effort to break up the sheen and minimize damage to coastal communities.

BP executive Doug Suttles said he's not certain whether the chemicals being poured directly on the oil are slowing the leak from the well. But he said that if the technique is working, the slick should appear smaller when the company does flyovers.

"We hope to resume skimming, and I hope this week we can actually use burning, as well," Suttles said.

Deepwater Horizon Disaster

April 20: Deepwater Horizon drilling rig explodes off Louisiana coast. Eleven workers missing and presumed dead.

April 22: Rig sinks.

April 23: Coast Guard Rear Adm. Mary Landry says no oil appears to be leaking from the undersea wellhead or at the water's surface.

April 24: Leak reported; oil is estimated to be leaking at the rate of 1,000 barrels a day.

April 29: Coast Guard says leak may be five times greater than earlier estimate: 5,000 barrels a day. Louisiana Gov. Bobby Jindal declares state of emergency.

May 1: Coast Guard Adm. Thad Allen is named national incident commander.

May 2: President Obama visits Coast Guard station in Venice, La.

May 3: BP CEO Tony Hayward tells NPR his company will pay for the cleanup and any "legitimate" legal claims.

The undersea well has been spewing 200,000 gallons a day since the offshore drilling rig Deepwater Horizon exploded on April 20, killing 11 workers. BP leased the rig from Houston-based Transocean.

Experts fear the environmental and economic impact on the Gulf Coast could be devastating.

Gulf Coast residents have laid protective booms along the shoreline and around fragile ecosystems in an attempt to protect them from the slow-moving slicks.

Fishing has been banned in federal waters from the Mississippi River to the Florida Panhandle because of fears that marine life has been contaminated. The ban was implemented Sunday and will last for at least 10 days.

John Stebly, who owns a fishing charter business in Ocean Springs, Miss., said his houseboats have a Styrofoam-type material underneath and will melt like wax in a flame if the oil comes into contact with them.

"It's got a lot of growth, like barnacles and stuff on it and I'm hoping that will protect it somewhat," Stebly said. "But if it gets to the bare foam then I'm sure it would attack it and destroy the foam."

For now, all Stebly can do is monitor the location of the oil slick through news reports. He said he is keeping a close eye on the weather, too.

"The only thing that's kept it off now is that the wind has been going out of the north and northwest and that's holding it offshore," he said. "But as soon as it goes back around to the south, it's going to blow it right back up into the Gulf, against our coast right here, I'm sure."

In Louisiana, Gov. Bobby Jindal opened shrimping season early so shrimpers could gather their catch before it gets coated in oil. The season is scheduled to end Tuesday evening.

For the tourism industry, the spill couldn't come at a worse time. Restaurant owners and innkeepers said they are already getting calls about the disaster. "It's the beginning of the booking season, the beginning of the summer season," said Marie Curren, sales director for Brett/Robinson, a real estate firm in Gulf Shores, Ala. "The only thing that could make it worse now is a hurricane."

Dana Powell expects at least some lost business at the Paradise Inn in Pensacola Beach, Fla., and could see an altogether different type of guest: Instead of families boating, parasailing and fishing, workers on cleanup crews will probably be renting her rooms.

"They won't be having as much fun," Powell said, "but they might be buying more liquor at the bar, because they'll be so depressed."

In Pensacola, Fla., state Environmental Protection Secretary Michael Sole briefed local officials preparing for the oil to hit land.

"BP has actually provided a block grant to the state to the tune of $25 million," he said. "It is our intent to go ahead and work with you to identify those local action plans and see if we can get you that money so you can get those implemented."

Local officials will use the money to hire emergency workers and equipment. Alabama, Mississippi and Louisiana were given similar grants.

The latest satellite image of the slick, taken Sunday night, showed that it has shrunk since last week, but that might mean only that some of the oil has gone underwater. The new image found oil covering about 2,000 square miles, rather than the roughly 3,400 square miles observed last Thursday, said Hans Graber of the University of Miami.

In the meantime, drills have broken through the seabed on one of two possible BP relief wells, which could take up to three months to complete. The company is also working on an underwater containment dome to cover three leaks at the well and pump oil to a container ship.

Scientists have differing opinions on where the Gulf oil spill will go next. One oceanographer predicted currents would take the slick past the Florida Keys and into the North Atlantic.

Robert Weisberg of the University of South Florida's College of Marine Science has spent years mapping the currents in the Gulf. He said the prevailing winds will keep pushing the oil north toward the Louisiana shore over the next few days. But the slick is not far from what is called the "loop current," and if the oil gets into that flow, its effects could become more widespread, Weisberg said.

"Once that entrainment occurs, then the movement is very quick," he said. "So, from time it gets into the loop current to, say, the vicinity of the Florida Straits, it could be a week. From the Florida Straits to Cape Hatteras, it could be another two weeks."

Weisberg said the loop current has been known to reach as far north as the site of the undersea gusher.

Executives of BP and Transocean are scheduled to brief members of the House Energy and Commerce Committee in a closed-door session Tuesday afternoon. The committee is investigating the leak.

The slick is casting a shadow over the prospects of more offshore drilling for oil and gas.

Days into the oil spill, President Obama said he still supports offshore drilling so long as it's done responsibly and doesn't damage the environment. But in California on Monday, Gov. Arnold Schwarzenegger said he's yanking approval of an offshore drilling project along his coastline because he no longer believes the assurances of the oil industry.

In the U.S. Senate, expanded offshore drilling has won backing from many stalwart environmentalists, who are pushing a new energy and climate bill up a very steep hill. The bill offers support for more offshore drilling and new nuclear power plants as a sweetener to win votes from skeptics, who say the bill will raise consumers' energy costs.

Former Colorado Sen. Tim Wirth, who now heads the United Nations Foundation, said he expects the oil spill will upset the political apple cart in the Senate.

"I think that there will be a number of coastal people who were previously supporting the bill who will want provisions related to aggressive drilling taken out of the bill," Wirth said.

NPR's Jedd Brady, NPR's Christopher Joyce, Eileen Fleming with member station WWNO in New Orleans and Steve Newborn with member station WUSF in Tampa, Fla., contributed to this report.