BP sliced off a pipe with giant shears Thursday in the latest bid to curtail the worst spill in U.S. history, but the cut was jagged and placing a cap over the gusher will now be more challenging.
BP turned to the shears after a diamond-tipped saw became stuck in the pipe halfway through the job, yet another frustrating delay in the six-week-old Gulf of Mexico spill.
The cap will be lowered and sealed over the next couple of hours, said Coast Guard Adm. Thad Allen, the government's point man for the disaster. It won't be known how much oil BP can siphon to a tanker on the surface until the cap is fitted, but the irregular cut means it won't fit as snugly as officials hoped.
"We'll have to see when we get the containment cap on it just how effective it is," Allen said. "It will be a test and adapt phase as we move ahead, but it's a significant step forward."
Even if it works, BP engineers expect oil to continue leaking into the ocean.
The next chance to stop the flow won't come until two relief wells meant to plug the reservoir for good are finished in August.
This latest attempt to control the spill, the so-called cut-and-cap method, is considered risky because slicing away a section of the 20-inch-wide riser removed a kink in the pipe, and could temporarily increase the flow of oil by as much as 20 percent.
Live video footage showed oil spewing uninterrupted out of the top of the blowout preventer, but Allen said it was unclear whether the flow had increased.
"I don't think we'll know until the containment cap is seated on there," he said. "We'll have to wait and see."
President Barack Obama will return to the Louisiana coast Friday to assess the latest efforts, his third trip to the region since the April 20 disaster. It's also his second visit in a week.
BP's top executive acknowledged Thursday the global oil giant was unprepared to fight a catastrophic deepwater oil spill. Chief executive Tony Hayward told The Financial Times it was "an entirely fair criticism" to say the company had not been fully prepared for a deepwater oil leak. Hayward called it "low-probability, high-impact" accident.
"What is undoubtedly true is that we did not have the tools you would want in your tool-kit," Hayward said in an interview published in Thursday's edition of the London-based newspaper.
Oil drifted six miles from the Florida Panhandle's popular sugar-white beaches, and crews on the mainland were doing everything possible to limit the catastrophe.
The Coast Guard's Allen directed BP to pay for five additional sand barrier projects in Louisiana. BP said Thursday the project will cost it about $360 million, on top of about $990 million it had spent on response and clean up, grants to four Gulf coast states and claims from people and companies hurt by the spill.
Mark Johnecheck, a 68-year-old retired Navy captain from Pensacola, sat on a black folding chair as rough surf crashed ashore at Pensacola Beach and children splashed in the water. Johnecheck has lived in the Pensacola area since the 1960s, but doesn't come to the beach very often.
"The reason I'm here now is because I'm afraid it's going to be gone," he said. "I'm really afraid that the next time I come out here it's not going to look like this."
He said the arrival of the oil seems foregone: "I don't know what else they can do," he said. "It just makes you feel helpless."
His wife walks up and becomes emotional thinking about the oil. "It's like grieving somebody on their dying bed," said Marjorie Johnecheck, 62.
Next to her chair is a small white pail full of sugary Panhandle sand. She will take it home and put it in a decorative jar.
"I'm taking it home before it gets black," she said.
Forecasters said the oil would probably wash up by Friday, threatening a delicate network of islands, bays and beaches that are a haven for wildlife and a major tourist destination dubbed the Redneck Riviera.
Officials said the slick sighted offshore consisted in part of "tar mats" about 500 feet by 2,000 feet in size.
County officials set up the booms to block oil from reaching inland waterways but planned to leave beaches unprotected because they are too difficult to defend against the action of the waves and because they are easier to clean up.
Anne Wilson, a 62-year-old retired teachers aide who has lived in Pensacola Beach for the last year and a half, felt helpless.
"There's nothing more you can do," said Wilson, who lived in Valdez, Alaska, near the Exxon spill in 1989. "It's up to Mother Nature to take care of things. Humans can only do so much."
Florida's beaches play a crucial role in the state's tourism industry. At least 60 percent of vacation spending in the state during 2008 was in beachfront cities. Worried that reports of oil would scare tourists away, state officials are promoting interactive Web maps and Twitter feeds to show travelers — particularly those from overseas — how large the state is and how distant their destinations may be from the spill.
The effect on wildlife has grown, too.
The U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service reported 522 dead birds — at least 38 of them oiled — along the Gulf coast states, and more than 80 oiled birds have been rescued. It's not clear exactly how many of the deaths can be attributed to the spill.
Dead birds and animals found during spills are kept as evidence in locked freezers until investigations and damage assessments are complete, according to Teri Frady, a spokeswoman for the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration.
"This includes strict chain-of-custody procedures and long-term locked storage until the investigative and damage assessment phases of the spill are complete," she wrote in an e-mail.
Associated Press writers Adam Geller and Janet McConnaughey in New Orleans, Melissa Nelson and Matt Sedensky in Pensacola and Travis Reed in Miami also contributed to this report.
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