BP used giant shears to slice off a pipe Thursday in the company's latest bid to contain the Gulf of Mexico oil, but the cut was irregular and placing a cap over the gusher will now be more challenging, Coast Guard Adm. Thad Allen said.
BP had to use the shears after a diamond-tipped saw became stuck in the pipe halfway through the job, yet another frustrating delay in six weeks of failed efforts to stop, or at least curtail, the worst oil spill in U.S. history.
Allen said the cap was over the spill and will be lowered in the next couple of hours. It won't be known how much oil BP can siphon to the surface until the cap is fitted, but the irregular cut means that the fit won't be as snug as officials had hoped.
The next chance for stopping the flow won't come until two relief wells meant to plug the reservoir for good are finished in August.
BP's top executive acknowledged Thursday the global oil giant was unprepared to fight a catastrophic deepwater oil spill. Chief executive Tony Hayward told The Financial Times it was "an entirely fair criticism" to say the company had not been fully prepared for a deepwater oil leak. Hayward called it "low-probability, high-impact" accident.
"What is undoubtedly true is that we did not have the tools you would want in your tool-kit," Hayward said in an interview published in Thursday's edition of the London-based newspaper.
The latest attempt to control the spill, the so-called cut-and-cap method, is considered risky because slicing away a section of the 20-inch-wide (51-centimeter-wide) riser could remove kinks in the pipe and temporarily increase the flow of oil by as much as 20 percent. Allen said it was unclear whether the flow had increased.
Oil drifted six miles (10 kilometers) from northwestern Florida's popular sugar-white beaches, and crews on the mainland were doing everything possible to limit the catastrophe.
The Coast Guard's Allen directed BP to pay for five additional sand barrier projects in Louisiana. BP said Thursday the project will cost it about $360 million, on top of about $990 million it had spent on response and clean up, grants to four Gulf coast states and claims from people and companies hurt by the spill.
As the edge of the slick drifted toward Pensacola's beaches, emergency workers rushed to link the last in a miles-long chain of booms designed to fend off the oil. They were slowed by thunderstorms and wind before the weather cleared in the afternoon.
Forecasters said the oil would probably wash up by Friday, threatening a delicate network of islands, bays and white-sand beaches that are a haven for wildlife and a major tourist destination.
The effect on wildlife has grown, too.
The U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service reported 522 dead birds — at least 38 of them oiled — along the Gulf coast states, and more than 80 oiled birds have been rescued. It's not clear exactly how many of the deaths can be attributed to the spill.
Dead birds and animals found during spills are kept as evidence in locked freezers until investigations and damage assessments are complete, according to Teri Frady, a spokeswoman for the National Oceanographic and Atmospheric Administration.
Officials said the slick sighted off Florida consisted in part of "tar mats" about 500 feet (150 meters) by 2,000 feet (600 meters) in size.
Florida's beaches play a crucial role in the state's tourism industry. At least 60 percent of vacation spending in the state during 2008 was in beachfront cities. Worried that reports of oil would scare tourists away, state officials are promoting interactive Web maps and Twitter feeds to show travelers — particularly those from overseas — how large the state is and how distant their destinations may be from the spill.
Adam Geller reported from New Orleans. Associated Press writers Greg Bluestein in Covington, Louisiana, Matt Sedensky in Pensacola, Travis Reed in Miami, Kevin McGill over the Gulf of Mexico, Darlene Superville and Pete Yost in Washington, Brian Skoloff in Port Fourchon, Louisiana, Mary Foster in Boothville, Louisiana, and Michael Kunzelman in New Orleans also contributed to this report.