PORT FOURCHON, La. — The BP oil slick drifted within striking distance of the Florida Panhandle’s white sand beaches for the first time, raising the stakes another notch as submersible robots made another risky attempt to control the underwater Gulf of Mexico gusher.
After six weeks of failed efforts to block the seafloor well or divert the oil, the latest mission involved using a set of tools akin to an oversized deli slicer and garden shears to break away the broken riser pipe so engineers can then position a cap over the well’s opening. If it fails, it could make the largest oil spill in U.S. history even worse.
BP’s footing grew shakier as investors bolted from a double-whammy of bad news: The weekend failure of the previous well-capping bid, and the announcement Tuesday that the Justice Department was looking at criminal and civil probes into the spill, although specific targets for prosecution were not named.
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Shares in British-based BP PLC were down 3 percent Wednesday morning in London trading after a 13 percent fall the day before. BP has lost $75 billion in market value since the spill started with an April 20 oil rig explosion and analysts expect damage claims to total billions more.
In Florida, officials confirmed an oil sheen Tuesday about nine miles from Pensacola beach, a seaside tourism magnet at the start of its summer season.
Winds were forecast to blow from the south and west, pushing the slick closer to western Panhandle beaches.
Emergency crews began scouring the beaches for oil and shoring up miles of boom. County officials will use it to block oil from reaching inland waterways but plan to leave beaches unprotected because they are too difficult to protect and easier to clean up.
“It’s inevitable that we will see it on the beaches,” said Keith Wilkins, deputy chief of neighborhood and community services for Escambia County.
The oil has been spreading in the Gulf since the Deepwater Horizon rig exploded six weeks ago, killing 11 workers and eventually sinking. The rig was being operated for BP, the largest oil and gas producer in the Gulf.
Crude has already been reported along barrier islands in Alabama and Mississippi, and it has polluted some 125 miles of Louisiana coastline.
More federal fishing waters were closed, too, another setback for one of the region’s most important industries. More than one-third of federal waters were off-limits for fishing, along with hundreds of square miles of state waters.
Fisherman Hong Le, who came to the U.S. from Vietnam, had rebuilt his home and business after Hurricane Katrina wiped him out. Now he’s facing a similar situation.
“I’m going to be bankrupt very soon,” Le, 53, said as he attended a meeting for fishermen hoping for help. “Everything is financed, how can I pay? No fishing, no welding. I weld on commercial fishing boats and they aren’t going out now, so nothing breaks.”
Le, like other of the fishermen, received $5,000 from BP PLC, but it was quickly gone.
“I call that ‘Shut your mouth money,'” said Murray Volk, 46, of Empire, who’s been fishing for nearly 30 years. “That won’t pay the insurance on my boat and house. They say there’ll be more later, but do you think the electric company will wait for that?”
BP may have bigger problems, though.
Attorney General Eric Holder, who visited the Gulf on Tuesday, would not say who might be targeted in the probes into the largest oil spill in U.S. history.
“We will closely examine the actions of those involved in the spill. If we find evidence of illegal behavior, we will be extremely forceful in our response,” Holder said in New Orleans.
The federal government also ramped up its response to the spill with President Barack Obama ordering the co-chairmen of an independent commission investigating the spill to thoroughly examine the disaster, “to follow the facts wherever they lead, without fear or favor.”
The president said that if laws are insufficient, they’ll be changed. He said that if government oversight wasn’t tough enough, that will change, too.
BP has tried and failed repeatedly to halt the flow of the oil, and the latest attempt like others has never been tried before a mile beneath the ocean. Experts warned it could be even riskier than the others because slicing open the 20-inch riser could unleash more oil if there was a kink in the pipe that restricted some of the flow.
“It is an engineer’s nightmare,” said Ed Overton, a Louisiana State University professor of environmental sciences. “They’re trying to fit a 21-inch cap over a 20-inch pipe a mile away. That’s just horrendously hard to do. It’s not like you and I standing on the ground pushing — they’re using little robots to do this.”
Engineers have put underwater robots and equipment in place this week after a bold attempt to plug the well by force-feeding it heavy mud and cement — called a “top kill” — was aborted over the weekend. Crews pumped thousands of gallons of the mud into the well but were unable to overcome the pressure of the oil.
The company said if the small dome is successful it could capture and siphon a majority of the gushing oil to the surface. But the cut and cap will not halt the oil flow, just capture some of it and funnel it to vessels waiting at the surface.
BP’s best chance to actually plug the leak rests with a pair of relief wells but those won’t likely be completed until August.