The Coast Guard reported that 20 tar balls were found Monday night along the shore at Fort Zachary Taylor State Park in Key West. Samples are being sent to a laboratory for analysis.
As BP engineers continue to work on Tuesday to contain and eventually plug the deep sea oil spill in the Gulf of Mexico, scientists tracking the spread of oil disagreed on whether it had entered a powerful ocean current that could carry the crude as far east as Florida and potentially damage sensitive reefs in the Keys.
On Monday night, the Coast Guard reported that 20 tar balls were found along the shore at Fort Zachary Taylor State Park in Key West. Samples of the tar balls — found by park rangers and ranging in size from three to eight inches in diameter — will be sent to a laboratory for analysis, according to the Coast Guard.
In Washington, a top Interior official charged with overseeing oil and gas drilling resigned, and Homeland Security Secretary Janet Napolitano defended the administration’s handling of the emergency at the same time she said it was largely dependent on BP to respond to the crisis.
Chris Oynes, who had overseen oil and gas leasing in the Gulf of Mexico for 12 years before being promoted to Mineral Management Services associate director for offshore energy and minerals management, sent a letter of resignation effective May 31. Oynes has come under fire for being too close to the industry officials he regulated.
Meanwhile, BP announced it was awarding tourism grants to the governors of Florida, Alabama, Mississippi and Louisiana to help promote tourism over the coming months, in the wake of the Deepwater Horizon spill.
BP said it would give $25 million to Florida and $15 million each to Alabama, Mississippi and Louisiana.
Florida Gov. Charlie Crist said he would use the funds “to spread the word that Florida’s beaches are clean, our fish are biting, and the Sunshine State is open for business.”
Doug Suttles, BP chief operating officer, said Monday that a mile-long tube inserted into a damaged well pipe on the sea floor was funneling a little more than 1,000 barrels — or 42,000 gallons — of oil, natural gas and water a day from the well into a drill ship at the surface.
BP will gradually increase the amount of oil siphoned from the leak to a potential maximum of about 2,000 barrels a day — less than half the 5,000 barrels a day that the company and the U.S. Coast Guard estimate is leaking from the site.
Some scientists have said the leak may be 10 times worse, but that estimate has not been confirmed.
Suttles flew over the site of the spill Monday with Louisiana Gov. Bobby Jindal. He said BP’s containment efforts appear to be working because he had seen “the smallest amount [of oil] on the surface since the effort began.”
BP’s next step will be the “top kill,” which involves pumping up to 50,000 barrels of heavy, mud-like liquid into the oil well at a high speed.
Suttles said the “top kill” could be deployed by the weekend or sooner.
Clean-up and monitoring of the spill will take many years, said U.S. Coast Guard Rear Adm. Mary Landry. “We are not done,” she said.
So far, response crews have applied more than 580,000 gallons of dispersants in the Gulf since the Deepwater Horizon rig exploded on April 20, killing 11 people and starting the spill.
It is too early to tell how much damage the oil has caused underwater or how it is spreading, said Charlie Henry, a scientist with the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration. Henry said reports that the oil spill had sent miles-long plumes over ecologically sensitive reefs and other areas in the Gulf were premature.
Highlighting the conflicting assessment emanating from academia, government and industry scientists, Landry contradicted reports that the oil had reached a powerful ocean current known as the loop current, which could potentially spread oil to Florida’s Atlantic Coast and the Keys. “We know that the oil has not entered the loop current at this time,” she said.
Yet less than a half-hour earlier, University of South Florida College of Marine Science Dean William Hogarth told a news conference that computer modeling, wind forecasts, and satellite images showed otherwise.
“I think the threat to South Florida is real and we should get ready,” said Igor Kamenkovich, associate professor at the Rosenstiel School for Marine and Atmospheric Science at the University of Miami.
So far, winds and currents have kept the oil away from the Florida coast, according to the state Department of Environmental Protection.
Jim Lushine, a retired meteorologist who studied the Gulfstream for 15 years at the National Weather Service in Miami, said it is unlikely that oil from the Deepwater Horizon would get caught in the loop current because of prevailing southeasterly winds in the Gulf.