02-19-2017  8:49 am      •     

NEW ORLEANS — Oil from the BP spill is slathering some areas in a tarry mess while leaving others unscathed, and officials confirmed Tuesday that plumes are also lurking in the deep even as a device collects more crude gushing from the bottom of the Gulf of Mexico.
Test have confirmed underwater plumes dozens of miles from the broken wellhead off Louisiana that's been spewing oil since late April, NOAA Administrator Jane Lubchenco said in Washington.
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A University of South Florida research vessel confirmed oil as far as 3,300 feet below the surface 42 miles northeast of the site and 142 miles southeast, Lubchenco said at a briefing, joined by Coast Guard Adm. Thad Allen, who's monitoring the spill response for the government.
A recently installed containment cap on the stricken BP wellhead is helping to limit the leak, collecting more than 620,000 gallons of oil on Monday, Allen said. Authorities had reported that around 460,000 gallons were collected Sunday.
It's unclear, though, how much oil is still escaping, and underwater video feeds continue to show a dark geyser. BP announced plans recently to swap out the current cap with a bigger one next month that can capture more oil.
"I have never said this is going well," Allen said Tuesday. "We're throwing everything at it that we've got. I've said time and time again that nothing good happens when oil is on the water."
The presence of underwater plumes carries implications for deep-sea life because tiny microbes eat up that oil and consume oxygen, choking off the supply to other organisms. The impact could cascade up the food chain, cutting off the food supply of larger predators.
Officials noted that initial cleanup could take months and that the spill's effects could linger for years. And as the oil patches dance unpredictably from coastline to coastline, residents who depend on tourism and fishing are wondering how to head off the damage or salvage a season that's nearing its peak.
At the Salty Dog Surf Shop in Panama City Beach, near the eastern end of the spill area, manager Glen Thaxton hawked T-shirts, flip-flops and sunglasses with usual briskness Monday, even as officials there warned oil could appear on the sand within 72 hours.
"It could come to a screeching halt real quick," Thaxton said. "So we've been calling vendors and telling them don't ship anything else until further notice."
Allen said Tuesday that he will meet with BP to assess how well it is handling claims for relief from people hurt by the spill. The aim is "to see if we need to provide any oversight," he said, noting that "working claims is not something that's part of BP's organizational competence here."
In Mississippi, Gov. Haley Barbour over the weekend angrily blasted news coverage that he said was scaring away tourists at the start of the busy summer season by making it seem as if "the whole coast from Florida to Texas is ankle-deep in oil."
Mississippi, he insisted on "Fox News Sunday," was clean.
That sounded about right to Darlene Kimball, who runs Kimball Seafood on the docks at Pass Christian.
"Mississippi waters are open, and we're catching shrimp," Kimball said. Still, her business is hurting because of a perception that Gulf seafood isn't safe, she said, and because many shrimpers have signed up to help corral the spill elsewhere.
The random, scattered nature of the oil was evident this week near the Alabama-Florida state line. On the Alabama side on Monday, oil-laden seaweed littered beaches for miles, and huge orange globs stained the sands.
But at Perdido Key, on the Florida side, the sand was white and virtually crude-free. Members of a five-person crew had to look for small dots of oil to pick up, stooping over every few yards for another piece.
On Tuesday morning, though, the Alabama side looked markedly better, with calmer seas, signs that cleanup crews had visited and sticky clumps of oil no longer clinging to washed-up seaweed.
For some who are planning vacations in the region but live elsewhere, the spill's fickle nature is causing confusion.
Adam Warriner, a customer service agent with California-based CSA Travel protection, said the company is getting a lot of calls from vacationers worried the oil will disrupt their trips — even if they're headed to South Carolina, nowhere near the spill area.
"As of now we haven't included oil into any of our coverage language, and that's not something that I've heard is happening," he said.
That kind of misperception worries residents and officials in areas that aren't being hit hard by the oil — and even those in some that are.
"The daily images of the oil is obviously having an impact," said Gov. Bobby Jindal of Louisiana, the state closest to the leak and the one where the oil is having its most insidious effects on wildlife. "It's having a heavy, real, very negative impact on our economy."
Some of the most enduring of those images are of pelicans and other wildlife drenched in oil.
As the sun rose Tuesday on Barataria Bay, La., just west of the mouth of the Mississippi River, marsh islands teemed with oily brown pelicans and crude-stained white ibis. The birds inadvertently used their oiled beaks like paint brushes, dabbing at their wings, as the brown goo bled into their feathers.
Some struggled to fly, fluttered and fell, while others just sat and tried to clean themselves, sqwawking and flapping their wings. Dolphins bobbed in the oily sheen nearby.
Fishing guide Dave Marino looked out over the water in disbelief and disgust. The 41-year-old firefighter has been fishing these waters for 20 years.
"I'm an optimistic guy, so hopefully it doesn't just overwhelm the entire system," he said. "But if it continues to go on and the oil keeps coming in, eventually the balance is going to tip. Then what happens? Is it all over?"
President Barack Obama sought to reassure Americans by saying that "we will get through this crisis" but that it would take dedication.
Later Monday, he said he's been talking closely with Gulf Coast fishermen and various experts on BP's catastrophic oil spill and not for lofty academic reasons.
"I talk to these folks because they potentially have the best answers — so I know whose ass to kick," the president said in an interview with NBC's "Today" show.
"It just makes me sick to my stomach to think about one morning I could wake up and our beaches would be ruined," said Joseph Carrington, a 39-year-old worker at a scooter rental service who moved five years ago from Chester, N.Y., out of love for the beach.
"I have nightmares thinking about it on what it would do to us, my job, all of our jobs."
Kaczor reported from Panama City Beach, Fla. Contributing to this report were Associated Press writers Eileen Sullivan in Washington; Harry R. Weber in Houston; Matthew Brown in Billings, Mont.; Melissa Nelson in Pensacola Beach, Fla.; Brendan Farrington in Perdido Key, Fla.; Holbrook Mohr in Pass Christian, Miss.; Cain Burdeau in Barataria Bay, La.; Jay Reeves in Orange Beach, Ala.; and Brian Skoloff in Grand Isle, La.

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  • WASHINGTON (AP) — One month after the inauguration, the stretch of Pennsylvania Avenue in front of Donald Trump's White House still is a hard-hat zone. Skeletal remains of the inaugural reviewing stands poke skyward. Random piles of plywood and cables are heaped on the ground inside crooked lines of metal fencing. The disarray outside the president's front door, though not his fault, serves as a metaphor for the tumult still unfolding inside. Four weeks in, the man who says he inherited "a mess" at home and abroad is presiding over a White House that is widely described as itself being a mess. At a stunning pace, Trump has riled world leaders and frustrated allies. He was dealt a bruising legal blow on one of his signature policies. He lost his national security adviser and his pick for labor secretary to scandal. He's seen forces within his government push back against his policies and leak confidential information. All of this has played out amid a steady drip of revelations about an FBI investigation into his campaign's contacts with Russian intelligence officials. Trump says his administration is running like a "fine-tuned machine." He points to the rising stock market and the devotion of his still-loyal supporters as evidence that all is well, although his job approval rating is much lower than that for prior presidents in their first weeks in office. Stung by the unrelenting criticism coming his way, Trump dismisses much of it as "fake news" delivered by "the enemy of the people" — aka the press. Daily denunciations of the media are just one of the new White House fixtures Americans are adjusting to. Most days start (and end) with presidential tweets riffing off of whatever's on TV talk shows or teasing coming events or hurling insults at the media. At some point in the day, count on Trump to cast back to the marvels of his upset of Democrat Hillary Clinton in the November election and quite possibly overstate his margins of support. Expect more denunciations of the "dishonest" press and its "fake news." From there, things can veer in unexpected directions as Trump offers up policy pronouncements or offhand remarks that leave even White House aides struggling to interpret them. The long-standing U.S. policy of seeking a two-state solution to the Israeli-Palestinian conflict? Trump this past week offered this cryptic pronouncement: "I'm looking at two-state and one-state, and I like the one that both parties like. I can live with either one." His U.N. ambassador, Nikki Haley, the next day insisted, "We absolutely support a two-state solution." Trump's days are busy. Outside groups troop in for "listening sessions." Foreign leaders call or come to visit. (Or, in the case of Mexico's president, cancel out in pique over Trump's talk about the planned border wall.) After the president signed two dozen executive actions, the White House was awaiting a rush order of more of the gold-plated Cross pens that Trump prefers to the chrome-plated ones used by his predecessor. Trump hands them out as souvenirs at the signing ceremonies that he points to as evidence of his ambitious pace. "This last month has represented an unprecedented degree of action on behalf of the great citizens of our country," Trump said at a Thursday news conference. "Again, I say it. There has never been a presidency that's done so much in such a short period of time." That's all music to the ears of his followers, who sent him to Washington to upend the established order and play the role of disrupter. "I can't believe there's actually a politician doing what he says he would do," says an approving Scott Hiltgen, a 66-year-old office furniture sales broker from River Falls, Wisconsin. "That never happens." Disrupt Trump has. But there may be more sound and fury than substance to many of his early actions. Trump did select Judge Neil Gorsuch to replace the late Antonin Scalia on the Supreme Court, a nomination that has drawn strong reviews from conservatives. But the president is regrouping on immigration after federal judges blocked his order to suspend the United States' refugee program and ban visitors from seven Muslim-majority countries, which had caused chaos for travelers around the globe. Some other orders on issues such as the U.S.-Mexico border wall and former President Barack Obama's health care law are of limited effect. Trump says his early actions show he means to deliver on the promises he made during the campaign. 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Trump shouldn't mistake the fact that some of his supporters like his style with the fact that a lot of Republicans just want the policies he promised them. He has to deliver that." Put Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell, R-Ky., in the camp of those more interested in substance than style. "I'm not a great fan of daily tweets," McConnell said Friday, referring to the "extra discussion" that Trump likes to engage in. But McConnell was quick to add: "What I am a fan of is what he's been actually doing." He credits Trump with assembling a conservative Cabinet and taking steps to reduce government regulation, and promised: "We like his positions and we're going to pursue them as vigorously as we can." The challenge may be to tease out exactly what Trump wants in the way of a health care plan, tax changes and trade policy. 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