Based on the upper end of a range of government estimates, the spill passed the 140-million-gallon mark, surpassing the 1979-1980 Ixtoc I spill off Mexico.
While Hurricane Alex spared a direct hit on the gushing well 40 miles off the Louisiana coast, high swells kept BP from skimming or burning surface oil and halted the placement of new sections of boom.
Drillships continued to bore a relief well that is expected to plug the well in the next few weeks — slightly ahead of a mid-August target date – said retired Coast Guard Adm. Thad Allen, who commands the multipronged spill response.
“We’re now amassing our forces to move back out once the weather allows us to get back on the water and skim,” Allen told reporters at a Thursday briefing.
That could be sometime this weekend, depending on weather, he said.
New riser pipe
The rough weather also has also stalled the installation of a new ship that would roughly double the amount of crude siphoned up from the spewing well.
Once connected to the well, the Helix Producer will bring BP’s combined collection capacity to 53,000 barrels per day, Allen said.
Scientists on a government panel estimate that the well is spilling oil at the rate of 35,000 to 60,000 barrels per day, 2.5 million gallon at the high end.
The new vessel will connect by flexible hose to a new riser pipe running from the well to a buoy that keeps the riser far enough below the surface to miss storm effects. It will take about three days to make the connection after swells calm below 5 feet, Allen said.
Once in place, the Helix Producer will supplement two vessels now collecting oil at a rate of about 25,000 barrels a day – the Discoverer Enterprise, which stores the crude, and the Q4000, which can’t store it but flares it off.
Allen said the Discoverer Enterprise had to stop several times because of lightning as Alex roiled the Gulf.
‘A-Whale’ on the scene
Another addition to the cleanup arsenal arrived in the Gulf on Wednesday.
The world’s largest oil-skimming vessel, a Taiwanese tanker called the “A-Whale,” is expected to scoop as much as 21 million gallons of oily water a day.
BP officials said the rocking seas did not prompt the evacuation of anyone working on the ships closest to the well site, including the drillships and the vessels operating as command centers for underwater robots.
Around the Gulf, fewer than 12 percent of oil platforms and rigs were evacuated because of Alex, according to the Bureau of Ocean Energy Management, Regulation and Enforcement. Many workers who did evacuate began returning to their posts on Thursday, the agency said.
Protection for victims
While tar balls continued to foul Gulf beaches ahead of the Fourth of July weekend, Congress moved to create new rules to protect the victims of accidents on federal waters, like the April 20 blowout that killed 11 workers on the Deepwater Horizon drill rig and triggered the spill.
On Thursday, the House passed legislation that would increase corporate liability and lift caps on damage payments to victims’ families in such accidents.
A tangle of court rulings and federal laws now impose some liability limits and create a discrepancy between the payouts allowed for onshore and offshore accidents.
For instance, one statute caps a ship owner’s legal responsibility at the value of the damaged ship and its cargo. In the case of the sunken Deepwater Horizon rig, the value is effectively zero.
Another federal law could block the family members of the 11 dead workers on the Deepwater Horizon from receiving loss-of-companionship damages, even though such claims are allowed with onshore accidents.
Laws called outdated
House Judiciary Committee Chairman John Conyers, D-Mich., said the Deepwater Horizon disaster revealed the legal gaps and outdated, arbitrary distinctions between what offshore and onshore victims can recover in court.
“The unfairness of these laws is grossly apparent and makes no sense,” Conyers said.
Rep. Sheila Jackson Lee, D-Houston, said the proposal would update archaic liability laws and bring them into the 21st century.
Breadth of bill an issue
Republicans stressed that BP and other companies should pay all costs associated with the oil spill but objected to the breadth of the liability bill, because it is not limited to oil-related disasters.
Rep. Lamar Smith, R-San Antonio, said that it would make sweeping changes to liability and maritime laws without sufficient debate.
“This bill changes maritime law for everyone,” Smith said, “not just for those involved in the oil spill.”
Smith also said the legislation would create more inequities – even as it seeks to level the playing field – by giving maritime workers access to noneconomic damages that are not enjoyed by all workers on shore.
Rep. Ted Poe, R-Humble, said the bill was rushed to the floor without an adequate examination of its “unintended consequences.”
Victims’ families present
During House debate, family members of four of the dead rig workers watched from the gallery above the House floor.
House Speaker Nancy Pelosi, D-Calif., described meeting and praying with the victims’ families recently as they pressed lawmakers to revamp the liability laws.
Source: Houston Chronicle