BP faced a broadening crisis Monday with about a dozen tar balls that washed ashore on Crystal Beach were identified as oil from the BP well blowout in the Gulf of Mexico, the first evidence that oil from the oil spill has reached the Texas coastline.
But it was unclear whether the oil tar balls from the blowout dropped off a passing ship or drifted nearly 400 miles. A Coast Guard official said on Monday that it was possible that the oil hitched a ride on a ship and was not carried naturally by currents to the barrier islands of the eastern Texas coast, but there was no way to know for sure.
The amount discovered in Texas is tiny compared to what has coated beaches so far in the hardest-hit parts of shoreline across the five Gulf states – Louisiana, Mississippi, Alabama, Florida. It still provoked the quick dispatch of cleaning crews and a vow that BP will pay for the trouble.
“Any Texas shores impacted by the Deepwater spill will be cleaned up quickly and BP will be picking up the tab,” Texas Land Commissioner Jerry Patterson said in a news release.
The oil’s arrival in Texas was predicted Friday by an analysis from the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration, which gave a 40 percent chance of crude reaching the area.
“It was just a matter of time that some of the oil would find its way to Texas,” said Hans Graber, a marine physicist at the University of Miami and co-director of the Center for Southeastern Tropical Advanced Remote Sensing.
About five gallons (20 liters) of tar balls were found Saturday on the Bolivar Peninsula, northeast of Galveston, said Capt. Marcus Woodring, the Coast Guard commander for the Houston/Galveston sector. Two gallons (7.5 liters) were found Sunday on the peninsula and Galveston Island, though tests have not yet confirmed its origin.
Woodring said the consistency of the tar balls indicates it’s possible they could have been spread to Texas water by ships that have worked out in the spill. But there’s no way to confirm the way they got there. Galveston Mayor Joe Jaworski hoped the tar balls were a one-time occurrence. “It is such a small amount that I’m waiting to see whether more comes or not the next few days before getting really upset,” Jaworski said.
Tilman Fertitta, CEO of Landry’s Restaurants, said he’s not so worried about the tar balls because they’re a common sight in Galveston. He’ll be concerned, though, if it continues and swells into a problem like it has in other states along the Gulf Coast.
Landry’s has restaurants in Galveston, and a separate business controlled by Fertitta owns the San Luis Hotel, Hilton and IHOP restaurant there. Landry’s also owns the Kemah Boardwalk, a popular tourist spot. Landry’s has lost millions in sales and suffered from higher seafood pricing since the spill occurred, he said, adding that the company is reviewing possible claims against BP.
The largest tar balls found Saturday were the size of pingpong balls, while the ones Sunday were more like nickels and dimes. The distance between the western reach of the tar balls in Texas and the most eastern reports of oil in Florida is about 550 miles (885 kilometers). Oil was first spotted on land near the mouth of the Mississippi River on April 29.
More over, the news of the spill’s reach comes at a time that most of the offshore skimming operations in the Gulf have been halted by choppy seas and high winds. A tropical system that had been lingering off Louisiana flared up Monday afternoon, bringing heavy rain and winds.
Tests of a giant Taiwanese ship refitted to scoop up oil have been inconclusive because of high seas, the ship’s operators said. Initial results were inconclusive because of choppy waters, and bad weather on the horizon threatened to further disrupt clean-up efforts.
The tanker cruised near the Deepwater Horizon oil spill but Bob Grantham, a spokesman for the super-skimmer’s owner, TMT Shipping, said results were “inconclusive in light of the rough sea state we are encountering.” Grantham said the company, working with the U.S. Coast Guard, would continue testing the ship “to make operational and technological adjustments” for the supertanker.
The ship is believed to be able to suck up to 500,000 barrels (21 million gallons) of oily water a day through its “jaws,” a series of vents on the side of the ship.By comparison, more than 500 smaller vessels in 10 weeks have only managed to collect some 31.3 million gallons of oil-water mix between them.
Forecasters at the National Hurricane Center said there had been a 60 percent chance the system could blow into a tropical storm. But that was reduced later Monday to almost no chance because the storm had moved over land.
Officials have plans for the worst-case scenario: a hurricane barreling up the Gulf toward the spill site. But the less-dramatic weather conditions have been met with a more makeshift response.
Skimming operations across the Gulf have scooped up about 23.5 million gallons (89 million liters) of oil-fouled water so far, but officials say it’s impossible to know how much crude could have been skimmed in good weather because of the fluctuating number of vessels and other variables.
BP has now seen its costs from the spill reach $3.12 billion, a figure that doesn’t include a $20 billion fund for damages the company created last month. The storms have not affected drilling work on a relief well that BP says is the best chance for finally plugging the leak. The company expects drilling to be finished by mid-August. [via Discovery News and CBS News]