There is still a hole in the Earth, crude oil is still spewing from it and there is still, excruciatingly, no end in sight. After trying and trying again, one of the world's largest corporations, backed and pushed by the world's most powerful government, can't stop the runaway gusher. As desperation grows and ecological misery spreads, the operative word on the ground now is, incredibly, August - the earliest moment that a real resolution could be at hand. And even then, there's no guarantee of success. For the United States and the people of its beleaguered Gulf Coast, a dispiriting summer of oil and anger lies dead ahead. Oh ... and the Atlantic hurricane season begins Tuesday.
The latest attempt - using a remote robotic arm to stuff golf balls and assorted debris into the gash in the seafloor - didn't work. On Sunday, as churches echoed with prayers for a solution, BP PLC said it would focus on containment rather than plugging the undersea puncture wound, effectively redirecting the mess it made rather than stopping it. Yet the new plan carries the risk of making the torrent worse, as top government officials warned Sunday. "We failed to wrestle this beast to the ground," said BP Managing Director Bob Dudley, doing the rounds of the Sunday talk shows. As the oil washes ashore, crude-coated birds have become a frequent sight. At the sea's bottom, no one knows what the oil will do to species like the newly discovered bottom-dwelling pancake batfish - and others that remain unknown but just as threatened.
Scientists from several universities have reported large underwater plumes of oil stretching for miles and reaching hundreds of feet beneath the Gulf's surface, though BP PLC CEO Tony Hayward on Sunday disputed their findings, saying the company's tests found no such evidence of oily clouds underwater. "The oil is on the surface," Hayward said. "Oil has a specific gravity that's about half that of water. It wants to get to the surface because of the difference in specific gravity." Perhaps most alarming of all, 40 days after the Deepwater Horizon blew up and began the underwater deluge, hurricane season is at hand. It brings the horrifying possibility of wind-whipped, oil-soaked waves and water spinning ashore and coating areas much farther inland. Imagine Katrina plus oil spill.
The spill is already the worst in American history - worse, even, than the 1989 Exxon Valdez disaster. It has already released between 18 million and 40 million gallons of oil into the Gulf, according to government estimates. "This is probably the biggest environmental disaster we've ever faced in this country," White House Energy and Climate Change Advisor Carol Browner said on NBC's "Meet the Press." At some point - the widespread debut of the BP "spillcam" is as good a delineation point as any - this tipped, in the national conversation, from a destructive event into a calamitous, open-ended saga. And for the bruised and cantankerous American psyche, it could not come at a worse time. Fear is everywhere, and polarization prevails. Faith in institutions - corporations, government, the media - is down. Americans are angry, and they long ago grew accustomed to expecting the resolution of problems in very short order, even if reality rarely works that way.
So when something undefined and uncontrollable happens, they speculate in all the modern forums about collusion and nefarious dealings. In the process, this tale of environmental disaster and economic damage cripples the sea-to-shining-sea narrative that usually offers Americans comfort during uncertain times. "There are people who are getting desperate, and there are more getting anxious as we get further into the shrimping season and there is less chance they will recover," said the Rev. Theodore Turner, 57, at Mount Olive Baptist Church in Boothville, near where oil first washed ashore. Fishermen make up about a third of his congregation. BP's next containment effort involves an assortment of undersea robot maneuvers that would redirect the oil up and out of the water it is poisoning.
The first step in BP's latest effort is the intricate removal of a damaged riser that brought oil to the surface of the Deepwater Horizon rig. The riser will be cut at the top of the crippled blowout preventer, creating a flat surface that a new containment valve can seal against. The valve would force the oil into a new riser, bringing it up to a ship. The seal, however, would not prevent all oil from escaping. White House energy czar Carol Browner said Sunday the effort could result in a temporary 20 percent increase in the flow. BP has said it didn't expect a significant increase in flow from the cutting and capping plan. If the containment valve fails, BP may try installing a blowout preventer on top of the existing one.
In the end, however, a relief well would ease the pressure on the runaway gusher in favor of a controlled pumping - essentially what the Deepwater Horizon was trying to do in the first place. But that will take at least two months. Using government figures, if the leak continues at its current pace and is stopped on Aug. 1, 51 million to 106 million gallons will have spilled. "They are going to destroy south Louisiana. We are dying a slow death here," said Billy Nungesser, president of Plaquemines Parish, La. Coastal tent cities are about to rise to house the workers and contractors minimizing the damage. Sand banks and barriers are being built. But the consensus around the Gulf Coast is turning more apoplectic and apocalyptic. This is, people are starting to say, a generational event - tragic to this generation, potentially crippling to the next.
"The oil spill is part of prophecy," said Turner, the Louisiana minister. "The Bible prophesized hardships. If we believe the word of God is true - and we do - we also know that in addition to prophecying hardships he promised to take care of us." The Obama administration, which has been grilled for not taking the reins sooner, sought to assure the public. "I am resolute and confident that we will see a better day ahead of us," Interior Secretary Ken Salazar said Saturday. And yet that statement, stacked up against the word "August," tempers the optimism for many watching this saga unfold. They see a dissembling corporation, an ineffective government and an ocean surface covered by a viscous shell with the consistency of molasses and the peril of poison. To them, it comes down to only this: There is still a hole in the Earth. Crude oil is still spewing from it. And there is still, excruciatingly, no end in sight.