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BP still collecting from well as oil hits Florida Panhandle

By the CNN Wire Staff
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Cap's first day collects 6,000 barrels
  • NEW: BP official "pleased" with containment progress
  • NEW: Alabama mayor confronts BP official
  • BP collects 250,000 gallons of oil in first 24 hours of funneling
  • BP hopes to increase that amount as pressure in cap eases

Pensacola, Florida (CNN) -- As oil drifted onto beaches as far east as the Florida Panhandle, a BP official said Saturday the company was pleased with its operation to funnel crude up from the ruptured undersea well to a drilling ship a mile above on the Gulf of Mexico.

BP Senior Vice President Bob Fryar said the company funneled about 250,000 gallons of oil in the first 24 hours from a containment cap installed on the well to a drilling ship on the ocean surface.

"That operation has gone extremely well," Fryar said at an Alabama news conference. "We are very pleased."

That's about 31 percent of the 798,000 gallons of crude federal authorities estimate is gushing into the sea every day.

The company's progress was not enough to temper the frustration seething among residents along the coastline.

Tony Kennon, the mayor of Orange Beach, Alabama, confronted Fryar at the afternoon news conference for not acting promptly when reports of tar balls washing ashore surfaced. Visibly upset, Kennon said local officials have been asking to meet with BP officials for over a month, but their requests went unanswered.

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"If you sensed our frustration, you would have been here a lot sooner," Kennon told Fryar. "People in Orange Beach are starving to death now because they can't get out to catch the fish."

BP engineers are hoping to increase the amount being funneled to the drilling ship but have to be careful about the pressure within the cap that was placed on the well head a few days ago, said Coast Guard Adm. Thad Allen, the federal government's response manager.

Allen told reporters at a briefing Saturday that BP plans to shut valves in the cap -- which are allowing oil to escape -- once the pressure is eased. The ultimate capacity of the operation is 630,000 captured gallons a day, still shy of the amount spewing.

Earlier, coastal residents had anxiously awaited news of BP's progress as elevated southerly winds pushed the perimeter of the spilled oil to shorelines as far east as the Florida Panhandle. The National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration predicted that scattered tar balls and light sheen would impact beaches as far east as Bay County, home to popular destinations in Panama City.

Florida beaches remained open Saturday but the number of beachgoers was down. Sun and surf were interrupted by sticky brown globs of oil washing up on the sugary sand and workers with blue rubber gloves and plastic bags trying to keep the beach clean.

Florida Gov. Charlie Crist walked the beach accompanied by "Margaritaville" singer Jimmy Buffet, who is building a hotel on the Pensacola shoreline.

"I saw some tar balls," Crist said. "It's terrible when you see something like that. It breaks your heart."

Florida Sen. George LeMieux, a Republican, demanded that BP donate $1 billion for a cleanup fund for the five Gulf states and said that President Obama "needs to push them to do that."

"I want to see this president more engaged here on the ground, working through problems," LeMieux said.

The oil slick has already threatened ecologically sensitive lands along the Gulf Coast. Images of oil-drenched pelicans were all over the internet, prompting even more public anger toward BP.

Obama sought in his weekly address Saturday to ease fear along the Gulf Coast by reaffirming his commitment to clean up the worst oil spill in U.S. history.

"It's brutally unfair. It's wrong," Obama said in the address, recorded a day earlier in Grand Isle, Louisiana. "And what I told these men and women -- and what I have said since the beginning of this disaster -- is that I'm going to stand with the people of the Gulf Coast until they are made whole."

It appeared that BP was making progress after capping the breached well head, Obama said, but he said the federal government was "prepared for the worst." He cited a series of statistics that illuminated the "largest response to an environmental disaster of this kind in the history of our country."

They are as follows:

17,500 National Guard troops authorized for deployment.

20,000 people currently working to protect water and coastlines.

1,900 vessels are in the Gulf assisting in the cleanup.

4.3 million feet of boom deployed with another 2.9 million feet of boom available, enough to stretch 1,300 miles.

17 staging areas across Louisiana, Mississippi, Alabama, and Florida to rapidly defend sensitive shorelines.

Meanwhile, the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration on Saturday reopened an area of the Gulf to fishing. After reviewing images and data, the agency reopened more than 13,000 square miles west of the Florida Keys and Dry Tortugas.

At the same time, it closed 2,275-square miles off the Florida Panhandle, extending the northern boundary just east of the western edge of Choctawhatchee Bay. That means that 32 percent of the Gulf still remains off-limits for fishing.

The BP well erupted after an explosion and fire on the Deepwater Horizon drilling rig on April 20. Eleven people on board died and the BP-leased rig sank two days later, leaving up to 19,000 barrels (798,000 gallons) of oil pouring into the Gulf daily, according to federal estimates.

BP has struggled to contain the gushing oil, trying myriad methods to plug the well and divert the crude.

Thursday was the first time the British oil giant was able to report progress, when it successfully lowered a containment cap on the ruptured well.

Even if the funneling procedure is able to contain most of the oil, the solution is temporary, Allen said. The gushing well can only be killed after BP completes drilling of two relief wells.

Allen said the first relief well is about 7,000 feet below the ocean floor. BP will have to go down to between 16,000 and 18,000 feet to be able to intercept the breached well.

The long-term threat, Allen said, will not go away until a relief well is completed. BP has said the earliest that will be done is August.

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