NOAA Confirms Underwater Oil PlumesOil from the BP spill is slathering some areas in a tarry mess while leaving others unscathed, and officials confirmed Tuesday that plumes are also lurking in the deep even as a device collects more crude gushing from the bottom of the Gulf of Mexico.
The cap over a broken BP wellhead at the bottom of the Gulf of Mexico is collecting more gushing crude day by day, but that's about the extent of the details known as authorities try to pinpoint how much oil is escaping, where it's going and what harm it will cause.
The recently installed containment cap on the stricken BP wellhead is helping to limit the leak, collecting more than 620,000 gallons of oil Monday, Coast Guard Adm. Thad Allen said Tuesday in Washington. Still, underwater video feeds continue to show a dark geyser.
"I have never said this is going well," said Allen, who's monitoring the response effort for the government. "We're throwing everything at it that we've got. I've said time and time again that nothing good happens when oil is on the water."
A boat uses a boom and absorbent material to soak up oil in Cat Bay, near Grand Isle, La., on June 28. A tropical storm is expected to hit the Gulf and impede cleanup efforts.
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Florida Gov. Charlie Crist and wife Carole Rome Crist (right) stand with others during a Hands Across the Sand event June 26 in Pensacola, Fla. The event was staged across the nation to protest offshore oil drilling.
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Oil clouds the surface of Barataria Bay near Port Sulpher, La., on June 19.
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Workers adjust piping while drilling a relief well at the site of the Deepwater Horizon oil spill.
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A dolphin rises up out of the water near Grand Terre Island off the coast of Louisiana on June 14.
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President Obama stands with Mississippi Gov. Haley Barbour (right) and Gulfport, Miss., Mayor George Schloegel after meeting with residents affected by the oil spill.
Crude oil washes ashore in Orange Beach, Ala., on June 12. Oil slicks, 4 to 6 inches thick in some parts, have washed up along the Alabama coast.
A volunteer uses a toothbrush to clean an oil-covered white pelican at the Fort Jackson Oiled Wildlife Rehabilitation Center in Buras, La., June 9.
Saul Loeb/AFP/Getty Images
A shrimp boat skims oil from the surface of the water just off Orange Beach, Ala., as a family enjoys the surf. Oily tar balls have started washing up on Orange Beach and beaches in the western Florida panhandle.
Sand from a dredge is pumped onto East Grand Terre Island, La., to provide a barrier against the Deepwater Horizon oil spill, June 8.
A dead turtle floats on a pool of oil from the Deepwater Horizon spill in Barataria Bay off the coast of Louisiana on June 7.
Workers use absorbent pads to remove oil that has washed ashore from the spill in Grand Isle, La., June 6.
Plaquemines Parish coastal zone director P.J. Hahn lifts an oil-covered pelican out of the water on Queen Bess Island in Plaquemines Parish, La., June 5.
Heavy oil pools along the side of a boom just outside Cat Island in Grand Isle, La., June 6.
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President Obama walks alongside Grand Isle Mayor David Camardelle (from right), U.S. Coast Guard Adm. Thad Allen, who is in charge of the federal response to the spill, and Chris Camardelle after meeting with local business owners in Grand Isle, La., June 4.
Saul Loeb/AFP/Getty Images
A brown pelican sits on the beach at East Grand Terre Island along the Louisiana coast after being drenched in oil from the BP Deepwater Horizon oil spill, June 3.
U.S. Attorney General Eric Holder announces that the Justice Department has launched a criminal investigation into the BP oil spill. With him, from left: Stephanie Finley and Jim Letten, U.S. attorneys for the Western District of Louisiana; Ignacia Moreno, assistant attorney general for the Environment and Natural Resources Division; Tony West, assistant attorney general, Civil Division; and Don Burkhalter, U.S. attorney for the Southern District of Mississippi.
The oil slick off the coast of Louisiana, seen from above.
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A worker leaves the beach in Grand Isle, La., on May 30. BP is turning to yet another mix of undersea robot maneuvers to help keep more crude oil from flowing into the Gulf.
Jae C. Hong/AP
Protesters cover themselves with a water and paint mixture during a demonstration at a BP gas station in New York City on May 28.
Workers clean up oil in Pass a Loutre, La. The latest attempt to plug the leak was unsuccessful.
Jae C. Hong, File/AP
Residents listen to a discussion with parish officials and a BP representative on May 25 in Chalmette, La. Officials now say that it may be impossible to clean the hundreds of miles of coastal wetlands affected by the massive oil spill.
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An oil-soaked pelican takes flight after Louisiana Fish and Wildlife employees tried to corral it on an island in Barataria Bay on the coast of Louisiana. The island, which is home to hundreds of brown pelican nests as well at terns, gulls and roseate spoonbills, is impacted by oil from the Deepwater Horizon spill.
A sign warns the public to stay away from the beach on Grand Isle, La. Officials closed the oil-covered beaches to the public indefinitely on Saturday.
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Pelican eggs stained with oil sit in a nest on an island in Barataria Bay on May 22.
A bird flies over oil that has collected on wetlands on Elmer's Island in Grand Isle, La., May 20. The oil came inland despite oil booms that were placed at the wetlands' mouth on the Gulf of Mexico.
Members of the Louisiana National Guard build a land bridge at the mouth of wetlands on Elmer's Island.
The hands of boat captain Preston Morris are covered in oil after collecting surface samples from the marsh of Pass a Loutre, La., on May 19.
Louisiana Gov. Bobby Jindal (center) and Plaquemines Parish President Billy Nungesser (right) tour the oil-impacted marsh of Pass a Loutre, La. "This is the heavy oil that everyone's been fearing that is here now," said Jindal.
BP Chairman and President Lamar McKay (left), with Transocean President and CEO Steven Newman (center) and Applied Science Associates Principal Deborah French McCay, testifies during a Senate Committee on Commerce, Science, and Transportation hearing May 18 on response efforts to the Gulf Coast oil spill.
Manuel Balce Ceneta/AP
This undated frame grab image received from BP and provided by the Senate Environment and Public Works Committee shows details of the oil spill in the Gulf of Mexico. BP has agreed to display a live video feed of the oil gusher on the Select Committee on Energy Independence and Global Warming Committee's website beginning Thursday evening.
Senate Environment and Public Works Committee/AP
President Obama speaks with local fishermen about how they are affected by the oil spill in Venice, La., on May 2.
Saul Loeb/AFP/Getty Images
Danene Birtell with Tri-State Bird Rescue and Research tends to a Northern Gannet in Fort Jackson, La., on April 30. The bird, normally white when full grown, is covered in oil from the oil spill.
Since the explosion, a third oil leak has been discovered in the blown-out well.
In this aerial photo taken April 21 more than 50 miles southeast of Venice, La., the Deepwater Horizon oil rig burns.
Tendrils of oil mar the waters of the Gulf of Mexico in this satellite image taken Monday. An estimated 5,000 barrels of oil a day are seeping into the Gulf, after an explosion last week on a drilling rig about 50 miles off the Louisiana coast.
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Authorities had earlier reported that the cap collected around 460,000 gallons Sunday and that it was capturing anywhere from a third to three-quarters of the oil spewing out after a damaged riser pipe was cut as part of the containment effort, increasing the flow as a side effect.
The drill ship Enterprise is now pulling up as much oil and gas as it can handle. BP plans to put in place a second system, which can process an additional 5,000 barrels a day, later this week.
BP says it still doesn't know how much oil is leaking from the well -- it could easily be more than these two ships can handle. So the company is bringing in another vessel to increase its ability to capture the oil and burn off the gas.
In Washington, D.C., on Tuesday, Massachusetts Rep. Edward Markey, the chairman of the House Select Committee on Energy Independence and Global Warming, accused the company of "deliberately lowballing" the size of the spill in order to hold down its legal liability.
"Right from the beginning they got lawyered-up," he said. "They were told not to tell the truth about the larger amount of oil that was going out there, but that had huge consequences in the amount of boom that was made available, the amount of protection that we were giving to the workers out there, the amount of chemicals that were shot into the ocean."
Markey said he has an internal BP document from the first week of the spill showing the company estimated the oil gusher was producing up to 14,000 barrels a day.
"They kept telling the American public it was only 1,000 barrels a day, and then they raised it to 5,000," he said. "They are now pulling up 10 to 12,000 barrels, and we can still see the gusher going up in the bottom of the ocean."
A member of the Coast Guard team that's trying to determine how much oil is still leaking told The Associated Press it's possible that estimates the team will generate could be higher than current government estimates.
The team member, University of Texas engineering professor Paul Bommer, said he understands why people might wonder why BP didn't try the cap sooner, especially now that it appears to be doing its job.
"Hindsight is always 20/20," Bommer said. "I think we have to give some credence to the notion they were trying to make things better without making things worse."
BP announced plans recently to swap out the current cap with a bigger one next month that can capture more oil, raising questions about why such plans weren't in place at first as a backup.
"I know it takes some time to fabricate these things," Bommer said. "It's not something you just go to Wal-Mart and buy."
The success of the containment system siphoning off oil from the leaking well, which has produced the nation's largest oil spill, is limited by how tightly the cap sits over it and the ability of ships on the surface to process the oil it traps.
To deal with more oil, BP PLC is preparing to use an EverGreen Burner made by Schlumberger Ltd., Schlumberger spokesman Stephen Harris said. The device turns oil and gas into a vapor that is burned.
BP spokesman Mark Proegler said the company has not decided whether to use the burner.
Bommer's team, the Flow Rate Technical Group, includes federal scientists, independent experts and academic researchers, and its projections could ultimately be used to penalize BP judging by how much oil escapes.
BP CEO Tony Hayward is scheduled to testify before a congressional committee June 17 about the company's role in the April 20 rig explosion, which killed 11 workers.
Hayward enraged many when he later said, "I'd like my life back," and is sure to receive pointed questions from lawmakers about the cause of the accident and the response to it.
Allen said Tuesday that he would meet with BP to assess how well it is handling claims for relief from people hurt by the spill.
The aim is "to see if we need to provide any oversight," he said, noting that "working claims is not something that's part of BP's organizational competence here."
At a briefing in Washington, the head of the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration, Jane Lubchenko, said tests confirmed the existence of underwater oil plumes drifting in the Gulf. Scientists from the University of South Florida found oil 40 miles northeast of the well and as deep as 3,300 feet below the ocean's surface.
"We remain concerned about the location of oil on the surface and under the sea," she said. "We are attacking it aggressively to mitigate the harm and to understand the impact."
Lubchenko said the oil's chemical fingerprint proved it was coming from BP's ruptured well. The samples show that concentrations are very low -- around half a part per million. BP had raised doubts about whether the subsurface plumes existed.
Researchers won't be able to definitively connect the undersea plume to the well until they can compare the samples.
David Hollander, an oceanographer with the university, said he was rebuffed by BP officials when he tried to get a sample of oil coming out of the wellhead.
"I tried to get a piece of the oil from a BP representative and it was met with resistance. He barked severely," he said.
BP officials did not return a call for comment.
On the surface, oil is washing up thick in some areas, leaving others relatively unscathed, and playing hide-and-seek in others. The spill's fickle nature was evident this week near the Alabama-Florida state line.
On the Alabama side on Monday, oil-laden seaweed littered beaches for miles, and huge orange globs stained the sands. But at Perdido Key, on the Florida side, the sand was white and virtually crude-free.
On Tuesday morning, though, the Alabama side looked markedly better, with calmer seas, signs that cleanup crews had visited and sticky clumps of oil no longer clinging to washed-up seaweed.
At hard-hit Barataria Bay, La., just west of the mouth of the Mississippi River, crews ramped up coastal restoration efforts that were already under way, and work is planned in coming days with BP's announcement that it would begin paying.
As the sun rose there Tuesday, marsh islands teemed with oily brown pelicans and crude-stained white ibis. The birds inadvertently used their oiled beaks like paint brushes, dabbing at their wings, as the brown goo bled into their feathers.
Some struggled to fly, fluttered and fell, while others just sat and tried to clean themselves, squawking and flapping their wings. Dolphins bobbed in the oily sheen nearby.
Fishing guide Dave Marino looked out over the water in disbelief and disgust. The 41-year-old firefighter has been fishing these waters for 20 years.
"I'm an optimistic guy, so hopefully it doesn't just overwhelm the entire system," he said. "But if it continues to go on and the oil keeps coming in, eventually the balance is going to tip. Then what happens? Is it all over?"