- Associated Press - Thursday, July 1, 2010

The Coast Guard and the Environmental Protection Agency are tightening up their oversight of BP and its contractors cleaning up the mess on the oily Gulf Coast.

Meanwhile Thursday, the House passed the first major bill related to the Gulf of Mexico oil rig explosion, voting to allow families of those killed and injured workers to be compensated far more generously than current law allows.

While families of the 11 killed and the 17 injured would benefit under the legislation, the bill also would apply to all companies operating on the high seas. The passed the bill on a voice vote, with no recorded tally. The bill now goes to the Senate.

The EPA and the Coast Guard sent the letter to BP PLC on Thursday, setting new requirements on how the company should test, manage and dispose of waste from the worst oil spill the Gulf has ever seen.

BP has hired contractors to haul away thousands of tons of oily refuse from the coast. A spot check by the Associated Press last week found the handling and disposal of oily materials in some areas was haphazard at best.

The House-passed legislation has strong political overtones. While industry groups complained that firms unrelated to the oil spill would suffer, Democrats portrayed the controversy as a fight between supporters of BP victims and backers of the oil industry and large companies.

A cruise ship trade group, on the other hand, urged Florida lawmakers to oppose the bill and pointedly reminded them of the industry’s spending and employment in the state.

Terry Dale, president and chief executive officer of the Cruise Lines International Association, wrote Florida lawmakers that his industry opposed the bill because it “makes sweeping changes in maritime law that affect all sectors of the maritime industry.”

Meanwhile, an unhappy mark was passed down in the Gulf of Mexico as BP’s spill became the largest ever in the Gulf of Mexico, based on the highest of the federal government’s estimates.

The oil that’s spewed for 2 1/2 months from a blown-out well a mile under the sea hit the 140.6 million-gallon mark, eclipsing the 140-million-gallon Ixtoc I spill off Mexico’s coast from 1979 to 1980. Even by the lower end of the government’s estimates, at least 71.7 million gallons have spewed into the Gulf.

As the Gulf gusher continued, the remnants of Hurricane Alex whipped oil-filled waves onto the Gulf Coast’s once-white beaches. The government has pinned its latest cleanup hopes on a huge new piece of equipment: the world’s largest oil-skimming vessel, which arrived Wednesday.

Officials hope the ship can scoop up to 21 million gallons of oil-fouled water a day. Dubbed the “A Whale,” the Taiwanese-flagged former tanker spans the length of 3 1/2 football fields and is 10 stories high.

The vessel looks like a typical tanker, but it takes in contaminated water through 12 vents on either side of the bow. The oil is then separated from the water and transferred to another vessel. The water is channeled back into the sea. But the seawater retains trace amounts of oil, even after being filtered, so the Environmental Protection Agency and the Coast Guard will have to sign off.

“This is a no-brainer,” said Ed Overton, a Louisiana State University environmental studies professor who consults for the federal government on oil spills. “You’re bringing in really dirty, oily water and you’re putting back much cleaner water.”

Meanwhile along parts of the Gulf, red flags snapped in strong gusts, warning people to stay out of the water, and long stretches of beach were stained brown from tar balls and crude oil that had been pushed as far as 60 yards from the water line.

Hurricane Alex churned up rough seas as it plowed across the Gulf, creating a tough setback for cleanup operations. The storm made landfall along a relatively unpopulated stretch of coast in Mexico’s northern Tamaulipas state late Wednesday, spawning tornadoes in nearby Texas and forcing evacuations in both countries. Alex weakened to a tropical storm Thursday morning as it moved across Mexico.

Although skimming operations and the laying of oil-corralling booms were halted across the Gulf, vessels that collect and burn oil and gas at the site of the explosion were still operating. Efforts to drill relief wells that experts hope will stop the leak also continued unabated.