WASHINGTON — A makeshift containment device was capturing more of the oil spewing from a BP well deep in the Gulf of Mexico on Saturday, but it remained unclear whether the cap could do more than crimp the spill as the oil slick began arriving on the shores of Florida's Panhandle.
Coast Guard Adm. Thad Allen, in charge of the government's response to the oil disaster, said the cap, lowered into place Thursday, diverted 6,000 barrels of oil to a surface ship during its first full 24 hours of operation.
The government estimates that 12,000 to 25,000 barrels a day are flowing from the well, but some experts think the amount could be much higher.
Many past attempts to stop the leak deep in the Gulf of Mexico have failed, after showing initial promise, and officials cautioned it would still be several days before they can gauge the effectiveness of the latest method.
Allen, briefing reporters in Theodore, Ala., said engineers were moving cautiously to increase the amount of oil being captured with the containment device. The cap has four vents that are leaking oil, which prevents seawater from coming in and forming hydrates, which halted an earlier rescue effort.
"They want to raise that (oil production) up to the maximum extent possible on a daily rate basis, and then slowly start turning off those vents where the oil is coming out of right now when they're sure they don't have sea water coming in," Allen said.
That could happen "very shortly," Allen said, but it depends on conditions at the well.
Southern Louisiana so far has taken the brunt of the oil spill. In recent days, however, the impact of the worst environmental disaster in U.S. history began to wash up on Florida's Panhandle.
A light sheen, about 100 yards by three miles wide, was confirmed about half a mile from Florida's Pensacola Beach, where tourists and locals gathered, carrying cameras or little shovels and plastic bags and hunting for tar balls splattered on the sand by the night's high tide.
The beach's signature sugar-white sands are stained light brown by the oil, which first washed ashore on Friday. Escambia County officials also reported tar balls at Perdido Key, east of Pensacola Beach. Florida officials have said the beaches will stay open.
Tom MacKenzie, spokesman for the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service for the southeastern region that includes Mississippi, Alabama and Florida, said several dead birds had been found along the panhandle. A few others were at a wildlife rehabilitation center in Pensacola. Some of them had been visibly oiled, he said.
"It's not a huge influx at this point,'' MacKenzie said, adding that the agency is also worried about turtles.
In his weekly radio address, President Barack Obama — who's come under growing criticism for his initial response to the crisis — expressed caution about BP's latest efforts to plug the leak, now in its 46th day and feared to continue well into the summer.
"As had been the case since the beginning of this crisis, we're prepared for the worst, even if we hope that BP's efforts bring better news than we've received before," Obama said in a taped address from Grand Isle, La.
He also said, "there will still be some slippage until the relief wells are completed."
The relief wells are not expected to be finished until early August.
Obama reiterated that the federal government would force BP to "pay every single dime owed to the people along the Gulf coast." Allen echoed the president's caution about what it will ultimately take to stop the oil leak.
"In the long term the threat from this well will not … go away until a relief well has been drilled, the pressure has been taken off and the well has been plugged," he said.
(Strobel reported from Washington. Mazzei, of the The Miami Herald, reported from Pensacola, Fla. Mary Ellen Klas and Jaweed Kaleem of the Miami Herald contributed to this article.)
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