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BP oil spill now Gulf of Mexico's largest

July 1, 2010 12:00:00 AM PDT
BP's massive oil spill became the largest ever in the Gulf of Mexico on Thursday based on the highest of the federal government's estimates, an ominous record that underscores the oil giant's dire need to halt the gusher.

The oil that's spewed for two and a half months from a blown-out well a mile under the sea hit the 140.6 million gallon mark, eclipsing the record-setting, 140-million-gallon Ixtoc I spill off Mexico's coast from 1979 to 1980. Even by the lower end of the government's estimates, at least 71.7 million gallons are in the Gulf.

The growing total is crucial to track, in part because London-based BP PLC is likely to be fined per gallon spilled, said Larry McKinney, director of Texas A&M University at Corpus Christi's Gulf of Mexico research institute.

The oil calculation is based on the higher end of the government's range of barrels leaked per day, minus the amount BP says it has collected from the blown-out well using two containment systems. BP collected a smaller amount of oil than usual on Wednesday, about 969,000 gallons.

Measuring the spill helps scientists figure out where the missing oil is, hidden below the water surface with some even stuck to the seafloor. Oil not at the surface damages different parts of the ecosystem.

And passing Ixtoc just before the July Fourth weekend, a time of normally booming tourism, is bitter timing, he said.

The BP spill, which began after the Deepwater Horizon drilling rig explosion killed 11 workers April 20, is also the largest spill ever recorded offshore during peacetime.

But it's not the biggest in history.

That happened when Iraqi forces opened valves at a terminal and dumped about 460 million gallons of oil in 1991 during the Persian Gulf war.

Hurricane Alex churned up rough seas as it plowed across the Gulf, dealing a tough setback to cleanup operations. It made landfall along a relatively unpopulated stretch of coast in Mexico's northern Tamaulipas state late Wednesday, spawning tornadoes in nearby Texas and forcing evacuations in both countries. Alex weakened to a tropical storm Thursday morning as it moved across Mexico.

Oil deposits appeared worse than in past days and local officials feared the temporary halt to skimming operations near the coast would only make matters worse ahead of the holiday weekend.

Although skimming operations and the laying of oil-corralling booms were halted across the Gulf, vessels that collect and burn oil and gas at the site of the explosion were still operating. Efforts to drill relief wells that experts hope will stop the leak also continued unabated.

In Florida, lumps of tar the size of dinner plates filled a large swath of beach east of Pensacola after rough waves tossed the mess onto shore.

Streaks of the rust-red oil could be seen in the waves off Pensacola Beach as cleanup crews worked in the rough weather to prepare the beach for the holiday weekend.

In Grand Isle, La., heavy bands of rain pounded down, keeping cleanup crews off the water and tossing carefully laid boom around. However, oil had stayed out of the passes.

Latest Developments:

  • As the Gulf gusher neared the record, Hurricane Alex whipped oil-filled waves onto the Gulf Coast's once-white beaches. The government has pinned its latest cleanup hopes on a huge new piece of equipment: the world's largest oil-skimming vessel, which arrived Wednesday.

    Officials hope the ship can scoop up to 21 million gallons of oil-fouled water a day. Dubbed the "A Whale," the Taiwanese-flagged former tanker spans the length of 3? football fields and is 10 stories high.

  • Meanwhile along parts of the Gulf, red flags snapped in strong gusts, warning people to stay out of the water, and long stretches of beach were stained brown from tar balls and crude oil that had been pushed as far as 60 yards from the water.
  • The Coast Guard and the Environmental Protection Agency are tightening up their oversight of BP and its contractors cleaning up the mess on the oily Gulf Coast.

    The agencies sent a letter to BP PLC on Thursday setting new requirements on how the company should test, manage and dispose of waste from the worst oil spill the Gulf has ever seen.

  • The Coast Guard and the Environmental Protection Agency are tightening up their oversight of BP and its contractors cleaning up the mess on the oily Gulf Coast.
  • The House on Thursday passed the first major bill related to the Gulf of Mexico oil rig explosion, voting to allow families of those killed and injured workers to be compensated far more generously than current law allows.
  • The administrator of the $20 billion escrow fund established to pay BP claims says he's changing the system so businesses can get emergency, lump-sum payments.

AP contributed to this report.


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