At-sea oil cleanup idled by poor weather in Gulf

— Across a wide stretch of the Gulf of Mexico, the cleanup of the region's worst-ever oil spill has been essentially landlocked for more than a week, leaving skimmers stuck close to shore.

Last week, the faraway Hurricane Alex idled the skimming fleet off Alabama, Florida and Mississippi with choppy seas and stiff winds. Now they're stymied by a succession of smaller storms that could last well into this week.

"We're just lying in wait to see if we can send some people out there to do some skimming," said Courtnee Ferguson, a spokeswoman for the Joint Information Command in Mobile, Ala.

Officials have plans for the worst-case scenario: a hurricane barreling up the Gulf toward the spill site. But the less-dramatic weather conditions have been met with a more makeshift response.

Skimming operations across the Gulf have scooped up about 23.5 million gallons of oil-fouled water so far, but officials say it's impossible to know how much crude could have been skimmed in good weather because of the fluctuating number of vessels and other variables.

Jerry Biggs, a commercial fisherman in Pass Christian, Miss., who has had to shut down because of the spill, is now hiring out his 13 boats and 40-man crew to BP for cleanup. He said the skimming operation is severely hampered by the weather.

"We don't even have the equipment to do the job right," Biggs said. "The (equipment) we're trying to do this with is inoperable in over 1 foot of seas."

From Louisiana, where skimming resumed after a three-day halt last week, to Florida, there are about 44,500 people, nearly 6,600 boats and 113 aircraft enlisted in the cleanup and containment effort, according to BP PLC.

The British company has now seen its costs from the spill reach $3.12 billion, a figure that doesn't include a $20 billion fund for damages the company created last month.

For many involved in the cleanup effort, nagging storms have whipped up choppy seas and gusty winds that make offshore work both unsafe and ineffective, stranding crews on dry land.

"We have to send our guys out every day and look at the weather and ask, 'Can we do this?'" said Courtnee Ferguson, a spokeswoman for the Joint Information Command in Mobile, Ala., which oversees operations in Alabama, Florida and Mississippi.

In the absence of offshore skimming, efforts in the three Gulf states east of Louisiana have turned largely on containment boom, about 550 miles of which has been deployed along the entire Gulf, and shoreline efforts to clean tar balls and other oily debris from beaches.

"We're operating 24 hours a day on the beaches, and anything that washes ashore we're able to get," Ferguson said.

It may be days before those beach crews are aided by skimming vessels, though, according to weather forecasters.

Heavy rain and scattered thunderstorms are predicted throughout the region into Wednesday, National Weather Service meteorolgist Tim Destri said Monday. The National Hurricane Center is also watching a low pressure system in the Caribbean Sea that has a low chance of becoming a tropical depression in the next two days.

If it does develop, it would more likely head toward northern Mexico or southern Texas, Destri said. But it's too early to predict its path with certainty.

The storms have not affected drilling work on a relief well that BP says is the best chance for finally plugging the leak. The company expects drilling to be finished by mid-August.

As it works to both clean up and contain the spill, BP is billing partners Anadarko Petroleum Corp. and Japan's Mitsui for their shares of the cleanup. BP has billed Anadarko, a 25-percent stakeholder in the blown-out well, for more than a quarter billion dollars so far. It also has reportedly billed Mitsui, a 10-percent partner, for $111 million.

Biggs, clearly angry over the situation, said the hurricane season will just further hurt the cleanup effort, saying one big storm will push the oil everywhere.

"This isn't going away. This isn't a sneeze or a hiccup. This is diarrhea for a long time," he said. "My lifestyle is screwed. It's over. The thing that I love the most I'm not going to be able to do anymore."

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