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Oil spill now less than 9 miles from Florida's golden beach coast

Oil from the BP spill touched barrier islands in both Mississippi and Alabama for the first time, as the company encountered a snag in its latest efforts to tame the sub-ocean geyser.

"Now the threat is shifting to Mississippi and Alabama," Admiral Thad Allen of the US Coast Guard confirmed.

Meanwhile, officials said a thin sheen of oil had been spotted just nine miles off the beaches of Pensacola, one of the most popular resort towns in the Florida Panhandle. The movement of the slick towards tourist areas will further fuel anger in the region at BP.


It has now embarked on the placement of a "top-hat" dome over the broken well opening.

Engineers hope that if it can be placed neatly, about 80pc of the leaking oil can be funnelled to tankers above.

By early yesterday, a robotic submersible had completed one cut in the ruptured pipe that used to rise from the well to the surface but now lies tangled on the sea bed.

However, the diamond-tipped saw became stuck when work began on making a second cut, Admiral Allen said. After a 13pc fall in London trading on Tuesday, BP shares fell another 2.5pc yesterday.

Bad news has buffeted the company ever since it was forced last Saturday to abandon its "top kill" operation that was supposed to drive the oil back down into the well to allow it to be sealed shut.

The company's woes were compounded on Tuesday by the announcement that the US government has opened criminal and civil probes into the circumstances of the accident. Details of what the investigations are likely to look like are still not clear, but it is assumed that BP itself might be targeted, as well as some individuals.

So far, no subpoenas have been issued, but that is expected to change soon.

President Barack Obama last night highlighted suspicions that the oil spill was an accident that could have been avoided.

"The catastrophe unfolding in the Gulf right now may prove to be a result of human error -- or corporations taking dangerous short-cuts that compromised safety," he said.

"Stopping this oil spill and containing its damage is necessarily the top priority, not just of my administration but of the entire country."

Under the microscope with BP are the other main companies that were involved in the drilling of the well.

They are Swiss-based Transocean, which owned the doomed Deepwater Horizon rig, Halliburton, which had been contracted to do the cementing of the well, and Cameron, the company that designed and built the blow-out preventer, a five-storey stack of valves and sheer rams that was meant to shut off the flow of oil after the blow-out but did not.

It is thought that investigators will search for possible violations of a number of US laws in the days and weeks before the April 20 disaster.


Even until a few days ago, top BP executives were publicly predicting that the oil spill would not cause coastal damage beyond Louisiana.

The fact that the oil has already reached two more states and may reach Florida before the end of this week significantly deepens the problems.

BP said it has spent nearly $1bn so far on fighting and cleaning the spill and a new tide of demands for compensation may well follow.

BP and its partners face a minimum fine of $1,000 per barrel of oil spilled.

If the spill were contained today, the fines would be between $480m (€390m) and $1bn (€817m).