As seas churned by Hurricane Alex thwarted skimming boats, wide strips of gooey oil stained miles of Baldwin County’s beaches Thursday on the cusp of the Fourth of July holiday weekend.
Following an afternoon reconnaissance flight, Gulf Shores and Orange Beach employees reported that oil of some sort — be it sheen, tarballs or orange globs — struck all 32 miles of Baldwin’s beaches, and streams of oil were spotted as far north as Wolf Bay in Orange Beach.
The post-flight report also noted heavy sheen and streams of weathered oil moving into Mobile Bay off the tip of the Fort Morgan peninsula and on the north side of Dauphin Island.
The report indicated that there would probably not be any relief on the horizon: Near-solid sheen, broken by masses of thicker oil, stretched for dozens of miles offshore along the entirety of Baldwin’s coast.
Offshore winds were expected to continue pushing the massive oil slick into the Gulf Coast from Louisiana to the Florida Panhandle through Saturday, according to a National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration forecast.
In what’s become a daily expectation of the 2½-month spill, oil is forecast to wash ashore — this time from the Atchafalaya Bay in Louisiana to Pensacola.
Offshore, seas of more than 4 feet have kept skimmers from attacking the oil before it comes inland. A Coast Guard official said conditions were expected to improve by today or into the weekend, when operations could resume.
As much as 2.5 million gallons of crude has been pouring into the Gulf each day since an April 20 explosion on the Deepwater Horizon drilling rig.
In Gulf Shores on Thursday, Ken Feinberg, the oil claims czar appointed by President Barack Obama, said that he has begun taking over from BP PLC, owner of the gushing well.
Within a week, businesses will see the first big difference — owners can file for up to six months of lost revenue at once, Feinberg said during a Thursday news conference.
“That will give them more financial security.”
Feinberg said his independent claims operation, which has no oversight from either the federal government or BP, began the takeover from a company-run effort a few days ago.
Business owners who have filed claims and aren’t looking for any changes won’t see much difference, he said. His operation will keep the same workers and same claims centers that BP put in place.
Owners who want the six-month payment will have to apply again, Feinberg said, and they will give up their right to sue BP.
Feinberg spent the morning meeting with representatives of different industries affected by the spill to see how the claims process could be tailored to their industries.
“Every claim has different nuances, different idiosyncrasies,” he said.
Feinberg also said that if a hurricane were to push the oil onto inland properties, those owners would be entitled to claims.
“Oil is oil is oil,” he said.
By midday Thursday, thousands of tarballs had cooked in the sun and congealed in giant puddles near the pier at Gulf State Park. It looked like melted chocolate, and smelled like the highway on a hot summer afternoon.
The storm surge from Alex pushed the tar halfway up the beach, covering small patches of beach grass.
Farther west, at the public beach in Gulf Shores, the tar was pushed up against beach volleyball courts and lifeguard stands. A hostess at The Hangout restaurant nearby said it was the farthest the oil had encroached on the beach since the spill began.
That didn’t deter Robert Jones. The Louisville, Ky.-native dripped with sweat after a game of volleyball as he ran into the surf. “That’s refreshing,” he said.
He said he usually drives down with a group of nine families every summer, but this year all but three canceled. They’ve been here for a week, shopping, sitting by the pool and finding other ways to kill time.