By David A. Fahrenthold and Anne E. Kornblut
Washington Post Staff Writers
Tuesday, June 8, 2010; A06
Forty-nine days later, the Gulf of Mexico got a bit of good news.
On Monday, U.S. officials said that a "cap" installed over a leaking oil pipe was capturing more than 460,000 gallons (11,000 barrels) of oil a day. Instead of spilling into the gulf, the oil was funneled up through the pipe to a ship on the surface.
The spill isn't over: Large amounts of oil -- nobody knows how much -- are still billowing out of vents in the cap. But for the first time since the Deepwater Horizon drilling rig exploded April 20, humans seemed to be partly in control of the leaking BP well, instead of the other way around.
"We only define success as when we actually get the oil plugged . . . and we return people's lives back to normal," said Kent Wells, a senior vice president at BP. "But this is an encouraging step. It's progressing along well."
On the same day, there were signs of how much trouble remains -- for the Gulf Coast, for the White House and for the oil industry.
A Coast Guard official said that the BP spill has broken up into something the government had not trained for: numerous tiny spills, which are still outflanking cleanup crews across hundreds of miles of coastline. And President Obama said the government would "ride herd" on BP to make sure it pays claims for lost income filed by Gulf Coast residents.
"This will be contained," Obama said. "It may take some time, and it's going to take a whole lot of effort. There's going to be damage done to the Gulf Coast, and there's going to be economic damages we're going to make sure BP is responsible for and compensates people for."
A new Washington Post-ABC News poll shows that Americans overwhelmingly see the oil spill in the Gulf of Mexico as a major environmental disaster and that most want the federal government to pursue criminal charges against BP and its drilling partners.
But the government itself is also in the line of fire, with more Americans giving lower marks to the federal response to the disaster than did so in the weeks after Hurricane Katrina.
Overall, 69 percent of those polled say the government has done a "not so good" or "poor" job handling the spill. And 81 percent give low marks to BP for its response.
On Monday, however, U.S. and BP officials offered the clearest evidence yet that the five-foot-tall steel cap is working. The device, put in place Thursday night, acts like an upside-down funnel, carrying a high-pressure mix of oil, natural gas and seawater up to a ship on the surface.
At the ship, the mixture is separated: The gas is burned off, the water is cleaned and the oil is put into storage tanks. The oil will later be taken to shore and probably sent to a refinery.
On Sunday alone, BP said, the pipe brought up 466,200 gallons (11,100 barrels) of oil. The government has estimated the size of the leak as between 504,000 gallons (12,000 barrels) and 798,000 gallons (19,000 barrels) a day -- which would mean that somewhere between 58 and 92 percent of the oil is now being captured.
"It is substantial good news. After all the failed attempts to do anything to this well, this is the first time that BP actually succeeded in capturing any substantial quantity of oil and gas," said Tadeusz W. Patzek, head of the department of petroleum and geosystems engineering at the University of Texas.
Patzek said BP would now try to increase the flow, constantly checking the pipe for signs that hydrates -- icelike crystals formed by cold seawater and natural gas -- might be blocking it. To prevent that, he said, the company is heating the pipe and pumping methanol down into the cap itself: "Think of this as antifreeze, like putting salt on snow."
But from cameras at the leak, it was clear that the cap wasn't capturing all the oil. It was still gushing out from the leaky seal where the cap meets the cut-off pipe and out of three open vents in the top of the cap. Neither U.S. and BP officials said they knew how much was escaping.
BP's next moves, Wells said, would be to install a system that could also suck oil out of the well using hoses designed to shoot mud in. These are the "choke and kill" lines, which failed to do either during an attempt to plug the well last month. The company also intends to install a tighter-fitting cap, part of a system that would make it easier for storage ships to disconnect and reconnect.
But even as BP's progress was announced, there were new signs of the impact the largest oil spill in U.S. history is having on coastlines. The U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service said Monday that it had now found more than 1,000 birds, either dead or alive but oily, along the coast. About 120 miles of shoreline have been affected.
And, in Jean Lafitte, La., the oil has already had a human cost.
Before fertile parts of the gulf were shut down, Judy Belsome worked 100 hours a week at a shrimp-processing plant in the town to maximize her overtime pay. But then her employer, Lafitte Frozen Foods, halted operations at one of its two local plants two weeks ago because of dwindling shrimp hauls -- large sections of the gulf are now closed to fishing.
The company normally handles 150,000 pounds of shrimp a day this time of year. It's down to 15,000 a day. And Belsome now works 15 to 20 hours a week at the remaining plant.
"We're just waiting for this one to close," she said Monday. "We'll have nothing to fall back on. There's so much uncertainty about what everyone does next."
Obama tried to strike an optimistic note, saying the disaster will present an opportunity to revitalize the Gulf Coast in the long run. He did not, however, provide any specifics.
"It's not going to be easy," he said. "But this is a resilient ecosystem. These are resilient people down on the Gulf Coast."
Staff writer Dan Zak in Jean Lafitte, La., contributed to this report.