WASHINGTON — A makeshift containment device was capturing more of the oil spewing from a BP well deep in the Gulf of Mexico on Saturday, but it remained unclear whether the cap could do more than crimp the spill as the oil slick began arriving on the shores of Florida's Panhandle and affecting wildlife throughout the Gulf.
Coast Guard Adm. Thad Allen, in charge of the government's response to the oil disaster, said the cap, lowered into place Thursday, diverted 6,000 barrels of oil to a surface ship during its first full 24 hours of operation.
The government estimates that 12,000 to 25,000 barrels a day are flowing from the well, but some experts think the amount could be much higher.
Many past attempts to stop the leak deep in the Gulf of Mexico have failed, after showing initial promise, and officials cautioned it would still be several days before they can gauge the effectiveness of the latest method.
Allen, briefing reporters in Theodore, Ala., said engineers were moving cautiously to increase the amount of oil being captured with the containment device. The cap has four vents that are leaking oil, which prevents seawater from coming in and forming hydrates, which halted an earlier rescue effort.
"They want to raise that (oil production) up to the maximum extent possible on a daily rate basis, and then slowly start turning off those vents where the oil is coming out of right now when they're sure they don't have sea water coming in," Allen said.
That could happen "very shortly," Allen said, but it depends on conditions at the well.
Along the Gulf Coast, the wildlife apocalypse that everyone has feared for weeks is fast becoming a reality.
Pelicans struggle to free themselves from oil, thick as tar, that gathers in hip-deep pools, while others stretch out useless wings, feathers dripping with crude. Dead birds and dolphins wash ashore, coated in the sludge.
Scenes like this played out along miles of shoreline Saturday, nearly seven weeks after a BP rig exploded.
In recent days, however, the impact of the worst environmental disaster in U.S. history began to wash up on Florida's Panhandle.
The beach's signature sugar-white sands are stained light brown by the oil, which first washed ashore on Friday. Escambia County officials also reported tar balls at Perdido Key, east of Pensacola Beach. Florida officials have said the beaches will stay open.