A device designed to cap a massive undersea oil spill in the Gulf of Mexico has captured nearly half of the crude that has been escaping daily from a damaged BP well, a US official said.
Coast Guard Admiral Thad Allen, the government's point man for the crisis, said on Monday that the device was capturing 11,000 barrels of oil per day. That's up from 6,000 barrels on Saturday, when it was first installed.
A second device will be installed later this week to further increase that capacity.
"BP anticipates moving another craft in that can actually handle additional production, and the combination of these two... will have a production capability of about 20,000 barrels a day," Allen said.
If the second installation is successful, the containment devices should be able to capture most of the oil flowing from the pipe. The US government estimates the total flow could be up to 25,000 barrels per day.
BP has said it will provide daily updates on how much oil is being captured by the improvised device.
The latest containment effort involves a cap placed over the leak that gathers the oil, allowing it to be siphoned up via a pipe to a container ship.
It is a modified version of an earlier bid in BP's six-week effort to stem the crude gushing from the ruptured pipe about 1.6 kilometres beneath the sea surface.
The earlier attempt failed because cold temperatures and high pressure at the leak site caused the oil to form a sludge that could not be siphoned.
The cap has been redesigned with valves that can be slowly shut down to help prevent the build-up of gas hydrates – similar to ice crystals – that doomed the first attempt.
BP's relative success in trying to contain the spill marks the first significant progress 47 days after the April 20 Deepwater Horizon rig blowout, which killed 11 people and sparked a massive environmental and economic crisis in the US Gulf states.
BP does not expect to fully halt the oil flow until August, when two relief wells are due to be completed.
Impact of spill
The slick is now threatening Alabama, Mississippi and Florida after contaminating more than 200 kilometres of Louisiana coastline.
There are reports of tar balls already washing up on the beaches of Florida.
Al Jazeera's Cath Turner, reporting from Pensacola Beach in Florida, said BP contractor crews there have been cleaning up tar balls that washed ashore on Saturday.
"The latest projections that we have for the oil spill is that it will continue to drift east," she said.
"So the impact of the oil spill will continue to get worse.
"The governor of Florida, Charlie Crist, is really begging for more attention, more money, more resources for the state of Florida, which is going to be undoubtedly the next worst-hit area. We've already seen the effects on Louisiana, Mississippi and Alabama."
Barack Obama, the US president, who made his third visit to the coast on Friday, fended off criticism that the government had not moved aggressively enough to tackle the crisis.
In his weekly radio and internet address on Saturday, Obama said his administration has put in place the largest response to an environmental disaster in US history.
|Barack Obama has promised to stand by those affected by the massive oil spill disaster [EPA]
He reiterated some of the steps his administration has taken to respond to the spill, including mobilising National Guard troops.
Obama promised to stand with local residents "until they are made whole" from the oil spill catastrophe, describing its impact as "brutally unfair".
"These folks work hard," he said.
"They meet their responsibilities. But now because of a manmade catastrophe, one that's not their fault and that's beyond their control, their lives have been thrown into turmoil.
"It's brutally unfair. It's wrong. 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."
Meanwhile, some Caribbean nations are concerned the spill may reach their shores in the coming days.
The Caribbean Community (Caricom), a grouping of Caribbean states, warned that a recent change in wind patterns could push the oil past the southern tip of Florida and toward its northern member states, including the Bahamas and Jamaica.
Edwin Carrington, the group's secretary-general, said on Saturday that tourism-dependent countries in the 15-nation grouping are expressing concerns about the drifting spill.