- - Monday, July 5, 2010

GALVESTON, Texas | A Texas official said Monday that tar balls from the Gulf of Mexico oil spill have been found on state beaches, becoming the first known evidence that gushing crude from the Deepwater Horizon well has now reached all the Gulf states.

Land Commissioner Jerry Patterson said two crews were removing tar balls found on the Bolivar Peninsula and Galveston Island on Sunday.

“We’ve said since Day One that if and when we have an impact from Deepwater Horizon, it would be in the form of tar balls,” Mr. Patterson said in a news release. “This shows that our modeling is accurate. Any Texas shores impacted by the Deepwater spill will be cleaned up quickly, and BP will be picking up the tab.”

The state said responders have recovered about 35 gallons of waste material tainted by the oil from the two sites. Signs of landfall by oil from the Deepwater Horizon spill had previously only been reported in Louisiana, Mississippi, Alabama and the Florida Panhandle.

Elsewhere in the Gulf on Monday, the U.S. National Hurricane Center said that a storm packing heavy winds in the Gulf of Mexico is likely to strengthen into a named tropical storm before it tears into coastal Louisiana on Monday evening.

The storm, centered about 50 miles south-southeast of Morgan City, La., was already packing sustained winds near tropical-storm force as of Monday afternoon. There was a “high chance” it will become the second named storm of the 2010 Atlantic hurricane season before it makes landfall in the Terrebonne Parish area near Caillou Bay early Monday evening, the Miami-based hurricane center said.

Bad weather has left the cleanup of the region’s worst-ever oil spill essentially landlocked for more than a week, leaving skimmers stuck close to shore.

“We’re just lying in wait to see if we can send some people out there to do some skimming,” said Courtnee Ferguson, a spokeswoman for the Joint Information Command in Mobile, Ala.

Officials have plans for the worst-case scenario: a hurricane barreling up the Gulf toward the spill site. Indeed, forecasters at the hurricane center Monday were also keeping close watch over an area of disturbed weather in the southeastern Gulf near Cuba and Mexico’s Yucatan Peninsula that could strengthen into a tropical depression later this week.

But the less-dramatic weather conditions have been met with a more makeshift response.

Skimming operations across the Gulf have scooped up about 23.5 million gallons of oil-fouled water so far, but officials say it’s impossible to know how much crude could have been skimmed in good weather because of the fluctuating number of vessels and other variables.

Jerry Biggs, a commercial fisherman in Pass Christian, Miss., who has had to shut down because of the spill, is now hiring out his 13 boats and 40-man crew to BP for cleanup. He said the skimming operation is severely hampered by the weather.

“We don’t even have the equipment to do the job right,” Mr. Biggs said. “The [equipment] we’re trying to do this with is inoperable in over 1 foot of seas.”

From Louisiana, where skimming resumed after a three-day halt last week, to Florida, there are about 44,500 people, nearly 6,600 boats and 113 aircraft enlisted in the cleanup and containment effort, according to BP PLC.

The British company has now seen its costs from the spill reach $3.12 billion, a figure that doesn’t include a $20 billion fund for damages the company created last month.

For many involved in the cleanup effort, nagging storms have whipped up choppy seas and gusty winds that make offshore work both unsafe and ineffective, stranding crews on dry land.

The spill is reaching deeper into Louisiana. Strings of oil were also seen Monday in the Rigolets, one of two waterways that connect Lake Ponchartrain, the large lake north of New Orleans, with the Gulf.

“So far it’s scattered stuff showing up, mostly tar balls,” said Louisiana Office of Fisheries Assistant Secretary Randy Pausina. “It will pull out with the tide, and then show back up.”

Mr. Pausina said he expected the oil to clear the passes and move directly into the lake, taking a backdoor route to New Orleans.

In the absence of offshore skimming, efforts in the three Gulf states east of Louisiana have turned largely on containment boom, about 550 miles of which has been deployed along the entire Gulf, and shoreline efforts to clean tar balls and other oily debris from beaches.

“We’re operating 24 hours a day on the beaches, and anything that washes ashore we’re able to get,” Ms. Ferguson said.

It may be days before those beach crews are aided by skimming vessels, though, according to weather forecasters.

From combined dispatches

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