Wednesday, June 9, 2010

BP oil collection ramps up; so do claims questions

By RAY HENRY, Associated Press Writer Ray Henry, Associated Press Writer

NEW ORLEANS – BP plans to bring in an oil-burning device and a tanker from the North Sea as it tries to contain the crude spewing into the Gulf of Mexico, a disaster creating headaches for people who make money off the sea and those processing their claims of financial loss.

The current containment system is catching 630,000 gallons of oil daily, Coast Guard Adm. Thad Allen said at a news briefing in Washington. Officials had previously cited that figure as the system's general capacity, but Allen said officials now believe it can handle 756,000 gallons.

Even so, there's still more oil eluding capture. BP is bringing in a second vessel that will increase capacity, as well as the North Sea shuttle tanker, which will assist in the transport of the oil, and a device that will burn off some of it. The company previously said it plans to switch out the current containment cap with a slightly larger one that will seal better and trap more oil.

The government is also keeping an eye on how BP is reimbursing people for their losses. Allen has written to BP CEO Tony Hayward demanding "more detail and openness" about how the company is handling mounting damage claims, reminding the beleaguered executive that his company "is accountable to the American public for the economic loss caused by the oil spill."

Allen has noted that "working claims is not something that's part of BP's organizational competence."

Among the frustrated is fishing guide Mike Helmer of Lafitte, La., who worries about paying his bills now that Barataria Bay, one of the richest fishing grounds along the Gulf, is largely shut down by oil taking the form of a widespread sheen complemented by gooey patches of crude.

Helmer said he filed a personal claim with BP several weeks ago and was told recently the company hadn't even begun on it. He filed a claim on his business just this week.

"If it's taking this long on my personal claim, who knows for my business?" Helmer said, adding that in the meantime he'll have no income — nothing.

"Who's asleep at the wheel here?" he added. "Everything's too little, too late."

Terry Hanners angrily confronted a BP representative during a community meeting Wednesday at Orange Beach, Ala., saying he was still working to fix rental property damaged by Hurricane Ivan in 2004 and has six units on the coast.

Hanners said the company paid him only $1,075 on a claim he submitted for $3,975 lost during May.

"You people just don't care," Hanners told BP's Chris Sliger, an executive vice president seated at the front of the meeting hall.

Sliger, who had already apologized for the spill and repeated BP's promise to help the region recover, didn't respond.

Allen noted in his letter that he and other officials planned to meet with BP officials Wednesday to discuss problems with the handling of damage claims.

After the spill, the administration of President Barack Obama imposed a six-month moratorium on deep-water drilling. Interior Secretary Ken Salazar promised a Senate energy panel in testimony Wednesday that he would ask BP to compensate energy companies for losses if they have to lay off workers or suffer economically because of the moratorium.

The government has estimated that around 600,000 to 1.2 million gallons are leaking per day, but a scientist on a task force studying the matter said Tuesday that his group may determine the daily rate is, in fact, somewhere between 798,000 gallons and 1.8 million gallons.

That means an amount of oil equivalent to two Olympic-size swimming pools might still be escaping daily into the open sea.

The oil now being captured is being pumped to a ship on the surface where workers are burning off the natural gas attached to the crude and shipping the remaining oil to shore. In addition, the British oil giant is preparing to deploy a device called an EverGreen Burner that turns the oil-and-gas mixture into a vapor that is pushed out its 12 nozzles and burned without creating visible smoke.

The burn rig will be moved away from the main leak site so the flames and heat do not endanger other vessels, BP spokesman Max McGahan said Tuesday. He did not know when BP might start using the burner, although company officials have said they want the rig that will carry it to start processing oil by mid-June.

The burner's manufacturer insists it's safe and clean, but some environmentalists argue it can pose health risks.

Obama aides are talking with BP about a longer-term containment strategy with "built-in redundancies," Allen said. Obama is scheduled to return to the Gulf Coast on Monday and Tuesday for a two-day update on the spill.

It's been seven weeks since the BP oil rig explosion that set off the catastrophe. The most recent government estimates put the total amount of oil lost at 23.7 million to 51.5 million gallons, making it by far the nation's largest oil spill. Oil has fouled beaches and wildlife habitats in spots from Louisiana to Florida.

The beaches were virtually oil-free in Orange Beach until dawn Wednesday, when small, rust-colored tar balls began rolling in and soon formed a reddish-brown streak in the water.

Walking on the beach with her husband, Cheryl Trotter wondered whether sea life knew the oil was coming.

"I've seen dolphins every day, at least four, on my morning walks. Today, there are none," said Trotter, of Knoxville, Tenn., rubbing her feet with sand to remove oil.

Said her husband, Jim: "It's been beautiful until now," he said. "This is going to be a shock."


Contributing to this report were Associated Press writers Brian Skoloff in Metairie; Eileen Sullivan; Jay Reeves in Orange Beach, Ala.; Matthew Brown in Billings, Mont.; and Harry R. Weber in Houston.

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