PENSACOLA, Fla. - The BP oil slick drifted close to the Florida Panhandle's sugar-white beaches yesterday as an effort to contain the leak by shearing off the well pipe ran into trouble a mile under the sea when the saw became stuck.
The diamond-tipped saw had sliced through about half of the pipe when it snagged.
It took BP 12 hours to free it.
The firm said it was preparing to resume cutting, but didn't give a timetable on when it might start.
The plan is to fit a cap on the blown-out well at the bottom of the Gulf of Mexico to capture most of the spewing oil; the damaged pipe must be cut first to ensure a snug fit.
"I don't think the issue is whether or not we can make the second cut. It's about how fine we can make it, how smooth we can make it," said Coast Guard Adm. Thad Allen, the government's point man for the crisis.
Admiral Allen said more staff, boats, and helicopters were sent to the eastern Gulf Coast as the slick spread.
Since the biggest oil spill in U.S. history began to unfold April 20 with an blast that killed 11 workers aboard an offshore drilling rig, crude has fouled 125 miles of Louisiana coastline and washed up in Alabama and Mississippi.
During the last six weeks, the well has leaked anywhere from 21 million to 45 million gallons, according to the government's estimate.
The latest effort to control the leak is deemed risky because slicing away a section of the 20-inch-wide riser could remove kinks in the pipe and temporarily raise the oil flow by as much as 20 percent.
If the strategy fails - like others tried to control the leak 5,000 feet underwater - a relief well that is at least two months from completion is probably the best hope.
As the oil drifted closer to Florida, beach-goers in Pensacola waded into the waves, cast fishing lines, and sunbathed as a two-man crew took water samples.
One of the men said BP hired them to collect samples to be analyzed for tar and other pollutants.
Officials said the slick sighted offshore consisted in part of "tar mats" about 500 feet by 2,000 feet in size.
County officials set up the booms to block oil from reaching inland waterways but planned to leave beaches unprotected because they are too difficult to defend against the action of the waves and are easier to clean up.
Off the coast of Pensacola, thousands of tar balls and tar mats are floating and skimmers have begun to scoop up oil, Florida Gov. Charlie Crist said yesterday.
He confirmed that a sheen of oil had been spotted Tuesday 9.9 miles offshore and a shift in weather patterns will likely push the oil to beaches along the Panhandle within a week, "possibly days."
More than 250,000 feet of boom have been laid along sensitive coastline off Pensacola.
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The BP oil slick drifted close to the Florida Panhandle's sugar-white beaches Wednesday as an effort to contain the leak by shearing off the well pipe ran into trouble a mile under the sea when the saw became stuck.