Thousands of responders working to minimize the impact of a growing oil spill in the Gulf of Mexico (GOM) have received what one of their leaders called “a gift of time.”

Weather has been cooperating, and while the spill was expected to make landfall late last week it still has yet to reach the shore. However, there have been unconfirmed reports of oil sheen reaching Chandeleur Island, LA, U.S. Coast Guard Rear Admiral Mary Landry told reporters Tuesday afternoon.

“It’s a gift of a little bit of time…but we’re keeping the pressure on ourselves,” said Landry who heads the Eighth Coast Guard District.

While previously responders had successfully burned about 100 bbl of oil on the water’s surface, the weather had prevented further burns. With improved conditions, BP plc COO Doug Suttles said the burns were expected to resume Tuesday afternoon, with responders attempting to burn as much as 500-1,000 bbl of oil at a time. “We’ll have to see what they accomplish.”

BP is the majority owner and operator of the lease where a ruptured well was still hemorrhaging an estimated 5,000 b/d, or about 200,000 gal/day, of crude 5,000 feet below the surface of the GOM on Mississippi Canyon Block 252 following a rig explosion on April 20 (see Daily GPI, May 3).

Oil dispersants are still being used under the sea surface at the well site to try to break up the oil as it’s released from the three leaks. However, an accurate read on the technique’s effectiveness will not be available until the latest images from overflights of the area are examined, Suttles said.

Suttles recounted an experience at a Walgreen’s drug store in Mobile, AL, on Monday. Standing in line another customer overheard his cellphone conversation and asked Suttles if he was involved in fighting the spill. “Are you going to get it,” the man asked Suttles. In response to the executive’s affirmative reply he said, “‘I hope so because I don’t want you to mess up my shrimp, and if you do, I’m going to come find you,'” Suttles recalled.

A more permanent fix for the three leaks at the well site is still some way off, but progress was being made. One of the leaks could be closed off with a newly attached valve very soon, Suttles said. However, that likely won’t reduce the amount of oil that’s leaking.

For the largest of the three leaks responders have fabricated the first of what is expected to be three domes, or collection chambers, to be placed at the well site. The first containment device is expected to leave the dock at noon Wednesday for its trip out to the well site. Once it is in place the drillship Enterprise will be enlisted to gather the oil that the device collects. “Hopefully we’ll be operational within about six days,” Suttles said of the effort.

Given the reprieve granted by the clear weather, relatively flat seas and the turnout of thousands of volunteers to help with efforts in all of the potentially affected coastal states, Landry, Suttles and Alabama Gov. Robert Riley, who also spoke with reporters Tuesday, sounded more upbeat than they have probably since the crisis began.

“With everything that we have going now: dispersants, boom placement — we’ve ramped that up to about twice the size it was…I really do think we can get there as long as the weather will cooperate,” Riley said.

As of Tuesday morning BP and responding agencies reported that 170 vessels were on the job and that 367,881 feet of boom had been deployed to contain the spill with more than one million feet yet available. More than 156,000 gallons of oil dispersant had been used with more than 230,000 gallons available.

Nine remotely operated submarines have been in use to monitor the well and try to activate the blowout preventer, which would seal the well. Nearly 3,000 personnel are responding to the crisis across the GOM. Additionally, more than 2,000 volunteers have been trained to assist. Nine staging areas are in place in Mississippi, Florida, Louisiana, Alabama and Louisiana.

President Obama has dispatched the secretaries of Commerce, Interior and Homeland Security, as well as the administrator of the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration (NOAA), to return to the Gulf Coast this week. They are expected to meet with business owners to discuss potential economic impacts of the spill.

Interior Secretary Ken Salazar, Homeland Security Secretary Janet Napolitano, Environmental Protection Agency Administrator Lisa Jackson and other members of the Obama administration have met with BP CEO Tony Hayward and BP America Chairman Lamar McKay at the Department of the Interior to discuss response efforts and receive an update on BP’s mitigation plans for potentially impacted Gulf Coast states.

Assistant Secretary of Labor for Occupational Safety and Health (OSHA) David Michaels visited Louisiana with a team of experienced hazardous materials professionals leading an effort to ensure that oil spill cleanup workers receive necessary protections from the hazards of this work. OSHA is consulting with BP, as well as federal agency partners, to ensure that workers receive appropriate training and protective equipment.

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