WASHINGTON/NEW ORLEANS - Hundreds of skimming boats prepared Friday to return to calmer gulf
waters in the wake of Hurricane Alex and resume cleanup of the massive
BP oil spill, which scientists now predict is likely to reach the
Florida Keys and Miami in the months ahead.
Using computer simulations based on 15 years of wind and ocean current
data, the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration released a report
Friday showing a 61% to 80% chance of the oil spill reaching within 20
miles of the coasts of the Florida Keys, Fort Lauderdale and Miami,
mostly likely in the form of weathered tar balls.
Shorelines with the greatest chance of being soiled by oil - 81% to 100%
- stretch from the Mississippi River Delta to the western Florida
Panhandle, NOAA scientists said in a statement
on its projections for the next four months.
Other areas of Florida have a low probability of oil hits. The Florida
Panhandle has already seen tar balls wash up on beaches.
But the chances of oil reaching east-central Florida and the Eastern
Seaboard are less than 1% to 20%, NOAA said. And it is "increasingly
unlikely" that areas above North Carolina will be hit.
Meanwhile, officials were moving skimming vessels back to sea and were
trying to protect the ecologically sensitive Chandeleur Sound area, said
Coast Guard Adm. Paul Zukunft.
"It's going to be a long weekend from an oil spill response
perspective," Zukunft said Friday. All skimming boats from Louisiana to
the Florida Panhandle had been idle for three days because of
dangerously high waves.
Officials hoped to move another containment ship above the gushing well
by Wednesday to nearly double the 25,000 barrels of oil being recovered
daily. As many as 60,000 barrels a day are spewing from the well,
according to government estimates.
An operation to drill a relief well, the ultimate solution to stopping
the leak, is seven to eight days ahead of its mid-August target date for
But Coast Guard Adm. Thad Allen, the national incident commander, said
Friday: "I am reluctant to tell you it will be done before the middle of
August because I think everything associated with this spill and
response recovery suggests that we should under-promise and
BP and the Coast Guard worked out an agreement Friday with wildlife
groups in response to concerns that sea turtles were being incinerated
when oil slicks are burned. The parties agreed to convene a group of
scientists to develop plans for monitoring future controlled burns, said
Cathy Liss, president of the Washington-based Animal Welfare Institute,
lead plaintiff in a lawsuit on the issue.
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Liss said the officials also agreed to notify her group of any burns
conducted after Tuesday and whether they have a biologist or other
trained observer nearby to protect the turtles. Officials had halted
such burns through Tuesday because of the weather.
The environmental groups had initially requested a temporary restraining
order to prevent the burns.
Meanwhile, U.S. Fish and Wildlife officials were making plans to start
shipping thousands of sea turtle eggs marked for collection along the
shores of Alabama and western Florida to the Kennedy Space Center this
Starting July 12, turtle eggs will be removed from nests, placed in
boxes and shipped in special climate-controlled, vibration-resistant
FedEx trucks to a climate-controlled, predator-proof warehouse at the
space center, Jacksonville, Fla.-based Fish and Wildlife spokesman Chuck
Underwood said. Hatchlings will be released at various locations and
times along the nearby Space Coast to avoid drawing predators, he said.
Federal officials also announced that stopover grounds would be created
along the Gulf Coast in an effort to assist some of the millions of
birds that will soon begin their fall migration.
Paul Schmidt, assistant director for migratory birds at the Fish and
Wildlife Service, said it would be impossible to redirect vast numbers
of migrating birds around the still-expanding oil slicks. But he said
safe grounds for feeding and breeding could be created in coastal
marshes and up to 100 miles inland.
He said conservation groups would work with private landowners to flood
crop fields, cut out invasive plants that have overgrown some habitats
and burn off some plants to open more ground for the birds.
On the economic side, new efforts were underway in the courts and
Congress to deal with the financial effects of the spill.
A coalition of business groups and Sen. Mary L. Landrieu (D-La.) filed a
brief urging the U.S. 5th Circuit Court of Appeals to uphold a judge's
ruling striking down the Obama administration's six-month deep-water
drilling moratorium in the gulf.
Also, a bipartisan group of Gulf Coast lawmakers launched a drive to
pass a package of tax breaks to aid struggling businesses hurt by the
Times staff writers Bob Drogin in New Orleans and Nicole Santa Cruz in
Los Angeles contributed to this report.