National

Time frame for spill fix: months

BOOTHVILLE, La. —There is still a hole in the Earth, crude oil is still spewing from it and there is still no end in sight. After trying and trying again, one of the world's largest corporations, backed and pushed by the world's most powerful government, can't stop the runaway gusher.

The operative word on the ground now is August — the earliest moment that a real resolution could be at hand. And even then, there's no guarantee of success. For the United States and the people of its beleaguered Gulf Coast, a dispiriting summer of oil and anger lies dead ahead.

And the Atlantic hurricane season begins Tuesday.

The latest attempt — using a remote robotic arm to stuff golf balls and assorted debris into the gash in the seafloor — didn't work. On Sunday, as churches echoed with prayers for a solution, BP PLC said it would focus on containment rather than plugging the undersea puncture wound, effectively redirecting the mess it made rather than stopping it.

"We failed to wrestle this beast to the ground," said BP managing director Bob Dudley, doing the rounds of the Sunday talk shows.

Trouble is, the longer it lasts, the more beasts emerge ready to wrestle. Crude-coated birds are becoming a frequent sight along coastal areas. At the sea's bottom, no one knows what the oil will do to species like the newly discovered bottom-dwelling pancake batfish — and others that remain unknown but just as threatened.

Perhaps most alarming of all, 40 days after the Deepwater Horizon blew up and began the underwater deluge, hurricane season is at hand. It brings the horrifying possibility of wind-whipped, oil-soaked waves and water spinning ashore and coating areas much further inland. Imagine Katrina plus oil spill.

On its own, the spill is already the worst in American history — worse, even, than the 1989 Exxon Valdez disaster. It has released between 18 million and 40 million gallons of oil into the Gulf, according to government estimates that are, like all numbers involved in this incident, subject to vigorous debate.

The trepidation is less disputed. "This is probably the biggest environmental disaster we've ever faced in this country," White House Energy and Climate Change Advisor Carol Browner said on NBC's "Meet the Press."

Browner also said, in a news release Sunday, that BP's next effort to contain the oil spewing from a damaged well in the Gulf could result in a temporary 20 percent increase in the flow.

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