Tuesday, June 29, 2010

Vice President to assess oil spill efforts in Gulf area

New Orleans, Louisiana (CNN) -- Vice President Joe Biden, on a visit to the Gulf area to assess efforts to stop the oil disaster, toured the New Orleans response command center, where he expressed appreciation to workers.
Biden toured the operations center with Coast Guard Rear Adm. James Watson, the federal on-scene coordinator.

"I just came to say thanks," the vice president told staffers at the center. "I appreciate it. You're probably missing out on vacation. My mother would say, 'God love you.'"
Following the tour, Biden planned to head to Pomes Seafood, a seafood wholesaler, and meet with local fishermen. Later, he plans to visit the Florida Panhandle region. Navy Secretary Ray Mabus was also in the area and was scheduled to tour the command center with Biden.

The vice president's visit comes on the 71st day of the spill that President Barack Obama has called the nation's worst environmental disaster.
BP said it is on track to reach its August deadline of getting a relief well down to the area where the oil is leaking in the Gulf of Mexico.

The relief well has reached a depth of 16,770 feet, but engineers plan to drill an additional 900 feet vertically before cutting in sideways, said Kent Wells, BP senior vice president of exploration and production.

Meanwhile, efforts continue to increase the containment of leaking oil. The next step is to bring in a third rig called the Helix Producer at the well, which would increase the containment by 20,000 to 25,000 more barrels per day, Wells said.

But powerful Tropical Storm Alex could derail the effort.

Alex was approaching hurricane strength early Tuesday and was located off the coast of Mexico's Yucatan Peninsula in the Bay of Campeche. It was moving to the north-northwest at about 12 mph, the National Hurricane Center said, but was headed away from the area affected by the oil spill.

If the storm's approach were to force the evacuation of the site, "there could be a break of about 14 days to take down the equipment and then bring it back," said Coast Guard Adm. Thad Allen, who is coordinating the federal response to the disaster.

Researchers have estimated that between 35,000 barrels (about 1.5 million gallons) and 60,000 barrels (about 2.5 million gallons) of oil are gushing into the ocean every day.
As of midnight Sunday, 483,500 barrels (about 20.3 million gallons) have been collected, BP said. From noon to midnight Sunday, about 8,290 barrels (about 348,000 gallons) were collected through two containment systems -- the lower marine riser package cap and the Q4000 system, named for the vessel where the oil is funneled through a manifold and hoses.

But even with BP feverishly trying to contain it, more and more oil seems to wash up on the coasts of some Gulf states.

Connie Moran, the mayor of Ocean Springs, Mississippi, said she was going to have to close a beach in her town Tuesday.

"What we're seeing actually is minimal tar balls anywhere from a penny to half-a-dollar size. They are tacky," she said.

CNN's Allan Chernoff, April Williams, Patty Lane, Chuck Johnston, Brandon Miller and T.J. Holmes contributed to this report.

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