WASHINGTON — As BP's latest attempt to capture leaking oil from its crippled rig in the Gulf of Mexico stalled Wednesday, Alabama, Florida and Mississippi braced for what officials said could be the first crude oil to hit their beaches.
With Florida's Panhandle near Pensacola on track as the spill's first landfall outside Louisiana, officials put another 20,000 feet of booms in place to protect precious wetlands there. In Mississippi, fishermen dumped their catch after oil washed ashore on Petit Bois Island off the coast and the state closed portions of its coastal fishing areas.
As the oil inched closer, comments by officials in Florida and Mississippi reflected a sense of urgency.
Florida Gov. Charlie Crist told CNN that the arrival of the oil was "imminent." At a mid-afternoon visit to the state's Emergency Operations Center in Tallahassee, Crist said: "We need to respond. We need to protect our state."
After Mississippi Gov. Haley Barbour toured Petit Bois Island, he promised to marshal all the resources needed to fight the pollution. Before Wednesday, Barbour's more common response to the Gulf spill had been to encourage tourism, telling visitors that there was "nothing to worry about here folks." Now he's calling the oil on the barrier island "a wakeup call."
At a Wednesday morning briefing, Coast Guard Adm. Thad Allen said BP's latest effort to stop the gush of oil from a leaking well in the Gulf had to be suspended Wednesday because a diamond saw blade got stuck in the pipe on the ocean floor it was trying to cut. The blade was later freed, and sawing was to resume as a prelude to installing a tight-fitting cap to capture the escaping oil and pump it to a barge on the surface.
Allen also said that tar balls has been found on Alabama's Dauphin Island, and the White House approved five berm projects in Louisiana to protect delicate marshlands where oil already has begun landing.
The federal government Wednesday also expanded the closed fishing zone to about 37 percent of Gulf waters, nearly 76,000 square miles, that ran from the western tip of the Florida panhandle southward toward Cuban waters.
Meantime, bad weather made it difficult to determine when the Deepwater Horizon's oil spill would reach the shores, said Escambia County, Fla., spokeswoman Sonya Daniel, who reported that aerial tracking on Tuesday had detected an oil sheen 9.5 miles off the county's coastline.
"At this point, we still don't have any oil on our shores," she added. "We have done our local booming strategy."
At midday Wednesday, Crist's office reported that a "concentration of tar balls" had been detected about 10 miles off the Escambia County coast, but still predicted "no large impacts" to the state before the weekend.
The primary oil plume from the Gulf of Mexico oil spill was 35 miles from Pensacola, according to the "oil plume model" from the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration.
The Food and Drug Administration, it said, was developing a "broad-scaled seafood sampling plan" to test seafood from the docks to the markets to the gulf waters themselves.
In Tallahassee, Crist said that skimmers had been deployed near Pensacola to remove "that oil from near-shore waters" and minimize any impact on the state.
The state's noon advisory noted that forecasts of increased winds and seas this week across the north-central Gulf of Mexico gave a 50 percent chance or better of showers and thunderstorms through Friday, which could hamper surface oil recovery operations.
In Pittsburgh, President Barack Obama said that regardless of the cause of the Deepwater Horizon accident on April 20, deepwater drilling was always risky.
"The catastrophe unfolding in the Gulf right now may prove to be a result of human error — or corporations taking dangerous short-cuts that compromised safety," he said in a speech at Carnegie Mellon University.
"But we have to acknowledge that there are inherent risks to drilling four miles beneath the surface of the Earth — risks that are bound to increase the harder oil extraction becomes."
In Mississippi, coastal residents clearly were frustrated when they left a BP oil spill forum Thursday with unanswered questions.
Representatives of several federal and state agencies assured residents that tests have found that shrimp and fish are untainted, dissolved oxygen levels in the water are near normal for this time of year, air samples test normal and the government will stay on the job until the Deepwater Horizon gusher is plugged and the environment is cleaned up.
Representatives of the Environmental Protection Agency and NOAA also acknowledged that long-term environmental consequences are inevitable.
"I do think it's fair to say that the BP oil spill is one of the greatest environmental challenges of our time," A. Stanley Meiburg, the EPA's deputy regional administrator, told 140 coast residents who attended a forum sponsored by the Mississippi-Alabama Sea Grant Consortium.
Barbara Medlock of Keith Huber Inc. in Gulfport wanted to know how much oil has been captured at sea and what is being done with it. She said her company, which manufactures mobile vacuum equipment used to suck up oil, has been unable to find those answers. She didn't come away from the forum with any.
Her boss, Keith Huber president Suzanne Huber, said company representatives are upset because dozens of vacuum trucks sit unused in a BP staging area. Huber thinks those trucks could be put to work sucking up oil from barges at sea so it doesn't reach shore.
The Deepwater Horizon response website indicates that 13.8 million gallons have been sucked up so far. A disaster response spokesman, who'd identify himself only as "Will" with the Coast Guard, told the Sun Herald of Biloxi, Miss., that oil mixed with saltwater is being stored in barges at various locations so the oil can be extracted and reused. He didn't know for what.
Patrick Sullivan, a recreational boater who signed up and trained to help with the cleanup through Vessels of Opportunity, wonders why he's never received a call to work.
Don Abrams of Ocean Springs, Miss., said he stayed up until 3 a.m. Wednesday researching the oil spill. He was concerned that a Texas laboratory with connections to BP is analyzing environmental samples. He believes the company may have a bias, but he was assured that government agencies are doing their own testing.
Abrams also has been reading about the continuing fallout from the Exxon Valdez oil spill in 1989. He said Alaska residents in the area suffer from immune, respiratory and nerve problems,
Abrams loves to fish and said his seafood is a staple of his family's diet.
"I'm not eating any fresh fish," he said. "I still have fish in my freezer."
(Rosenberg, of the Miami Herald, reported from Miami. Schoof reported from Washington. Geoff Pender and Anita Lee of the Sun Herald in Biloxi, Miss., contributed to this article.)
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