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Tropical storm halts Gulf oil skimming, booming efforts

Rough seas and high winds from Tropical Storm Alex, churning in the Gulf of Mexico far west of the Deepwater Horizon oil spill, forced the suspension Tuesday of skimming and booming operations off the coasts of Louisiana, Alabama and Florida, a BP spokesman said.

Inclement weather did not affect operations at the site of the well head, about 41 miles off the Louisiana coast, where large ships are capturing oil from the ruptured pipe, and drilling relief wells that offer the best chance to seal the undersea gusher.

But smaller ships, or so-called vessels of opportunity — contracted by BP to skim oily water, lay boom and transport personnel — were called in for the day, said Bryan Ferguson, a BP representative manning the Unified Command station in New Orleans.

"When seas get above two to three feet, it becomes a challenge for skimming and booming," Ferguson said, noting that about 2,800 vessels of opportunity were currently contracted for the spill response.

Meanwhile, Vice President Joe Biden began a tour of the Gulf region on Tuesday, meeting with national and local response teams and residents affected by the spill.

Louisiana Gov. Bobby Jindal, who met Biden as he arrived Tuesday morning, said he planned to press the vice president for a stronger federal response to the spill.

Jindal said heavy patches of oil were spotted about three miles offshore from Grand Isle on Monday.

"We didn't see one vessel out there trying to capture that oil," he said. "We need to have a greater sense of urgency. They need to treat this like the war that it is."

Jindal added that he will ask BP to fund a 20-year, $400 million program to test seafood for oil contamination and rehabilitate fisheries.

He said 30 percent of the nation's seafood comes from waters off Louisiana, where commercial fishing is a $2-billion-a-year industry and recreational anglers contribute another $1 billion annually to the local economy.

"Our message to BP is that the cost of this program is just a fraction of the damages that could be caused if we don't do this," Jindal said.

As the vice president toured New Orleans, and later Pensacola, officials at the Florida Peninsula Command Post in miami said they are prepared to respond should oil reach the state's southern shores — a risk that appears distant for now.

Oil from the broken undersea well is now 600 miles from the Florida Keys, and more than 100 miles from Panama City, according to members of the command post, which was established three weeks ago and houses representatives of BP, the U.S. Coast Guard, the Department of Interior, and the Florida Fish & Wildlife Conservation Commission.

"We're in a pretty safe place along the Florida peninsula," said NOAA scientist Dr. Eric Stabenau. "The projections are for the oil to go even further away from Florida" because of winds from Alex.

While the storm pushes oil away from Florida, though, high seas and winds have delayed the launch of a new system for capturing more oil from the ruptured well.

The system, which consists of a flexible pipe attached to a containment dome lowered over the ruptured well head, would siphon oil to the Helix Producer, a ship with the capacity to collect 20,000 to 25,000 barrels a day. BP spokespersons said the system should be ready to launch by July 8.

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