US tells BP to clarify cleanup intent as Gulf spill gushes on

Veterinarian Heather Nevill cleans an oil-covered brown pelican at the Fort Jackson Wildlife Rehabilitation (AFP photo)

NEW ORLEANS, Louisiana (AFP) – US officials have told BP to clarify what costs it will pay for cleanup of the massive Gulf of Mexico oil spill, with crews employing new tactics Sunday to stem the leak as globs of oil wash ashore in three states.

And while BP scrambles to contain the hundreds of thousands of gallons of oil at a minimum that is spilling into the sea each day, The New York Times reported that scientists have found huge plumes of oil in the deep waters of the Gulf which indicate the spill could be far worse than previously estimated.

The latest effort by British Petroleum to stem the disaster involves connecting an "insertion tube" to the leak site on the ocean floor so oil can be siphoned to a container vessel at the surface.

The process was supposed to be completed overnight, but a frame connected to the pipe had to be brought back up to the surface and adjusted, BP said.

The insertion tube was expected to be in place by Saturday night, according to BP chief operating officer Doug Suttles.

The company is under massive pressure from the US administration, including President Barack Obama, who Friday blasted companies involved in the disaster for seeking to shift blame and shirk responsibility.

He accused executives from three firms tied to the Deepwater Horizon rig that sank last month, precipitating the disastrous spill, of creating a "ridiculous spectacle" of finger-pointing and passing the buck.

Two of Obama's top cabinet members also sought to hold BP to public promises it has made to pay all the costs of the containment and clean-up of the spill, which has already run into the hundreds of millions of dollars.

In a letter released Saturday, Homeland Security Secretary Janet Napolitano and Interior Secretary Ken Salazar called on BP chief executive Tony Hayward to provide "immediate public clarification of BP's true intentions."

They said BP's public statements suggested the company would not seek to have a liability cap applied to claims against it, and would not ask for taxpayer dollars or tap into a liability fund.

Democratic Senator Robert Menendez, a sponsor of legislation to retroactively raise the liability cap for individual accidents from 75 million dollars to 10 billion, welcomed the government's effort.

"There should be no legal wiggle room for oil companies that devastate coastal businesses and communities -- now or in the future," he said.

Meanwhile, the US Coast Guard told AFP that oil was washing ashore in at least two new locations -- Whiskey Island, Louisiana and Long Beach, Mississippi.

"We sent crews to assess what type of oil, and we determined it's 'soft patties' on Whiskey Island and 'tar balls' on Long Beach," said Petty Officer Erik Swanson.

Oil globs have also washed ashore on barrier islands in Alabama.

The appearance of oil in new locations highlights the urgency of efforts to contain the spill, which experts warn may be growing at a rate close to 70,000 barrels (2.9 million gallons) a day, more than 10 times faster than previous Coast Guard estimates.

The new findings suggest the spill has already eclipsed the 1989 Exxon Valdez spill, the worst environmental disaster in US history.

BP disputes the figures, but has pledged it will do everything to contain and cap the spill.

But multiple efforts over the last three weeks to stop the leak, or even to slow the flow of oil, have failed.

Crews are spraying sub-sea dispersants directly onto the leak to break up the oil into barely visible particles that can more easily be broken down by naturally occurring bacteria under water.

The Times report Saturday quoted scientists saying they found huge oil plumes deep under water, including one 10 miles (16 kilometers) long, three miles wide and 300 feet (91 meters) thick.

"There's a shocking amount of oil in the deep water, relative to what you see in the surface water," the Times quoted University of Georgia researcher Samantha Joye as saying.

Joye is involved in one of the first scientific missions to gather details about the environmental disaster.

BP has also deployed to the seabed a container attached to a siphon tube that could be lowered over the leak to collect and then funnel away the oil to a ship on the surface.

The method was tried once before, but low temperatures and high pressure caused the oil to form sludge that clogged the funnel, so the container has been redesigned with a heating system.

Those options hold only the promise of containing the oil, with the first opportunity to cap the flow altogether not expected until late next week.

Then crews will undertake a "junk shot/top kill" process, where the leak is plugged with a variety of rubber and fibrous materials and then cemented over.

The ultimate solution to the leak involves drilling relief wells, one of which is already under way but could take two more months to finish.

Salazar, on the ground in Louisiana, said Obama had sent him with a message.

"We shall not rest, we shall not take a day off until we get this problem resolved."

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