NEW ORLEANS – NEW ORLEANS (AP) — Oil from the massive Gulf spill neared fertile barrier islands in Mississippi on Thursday as crude forced Florida officials to close a popular section of beach near the Alabama border.
It was yet another reminder that the oil gushing from the blown-out well on the seafloor is having a very real effect along the Gulf coast, washing up on beaches, damaging wetlands and killing animals.
The cap that has been the most effective method so far to contain some of the oil was back in place after a deep-sea blunder a day earlier forced crews to remove it for about 10 hours.
While the cap was off, clouds of black oil gushed unchecked at up to 104,000 gallons per hour, though a specialized ship at the surface managed to suck up and incinerate some.
Meanwhile, the governors of Louisiana and Texas declared Sunday a day to pray for help rebuilding communities and restoring the environment.
Darlene Kimball, owner of Kimball's Seafood on the docks in Pass Christian, Miss., has been doing that all along.
"I kept praying and praying that we'd be protected because we've been so fortunate," Kimball said. "All I can do now is pray, pray, pray."
Mississippi so far hasn't seen much effect from the spill, but a large patch of oil has crept into the Mississippi Sound, the fertile waters between the state's barrier islands and its mainland. It was a sobering reminder that the state's luck could run out.
Florida's already has, at least in some places. Government officials closed a quarter-mile section of Casino Beach in Pensacola Beach on Thursday, a day after thick pools of oil washed ashore.
Normally, there would have been hundreds of people on the sand and in the water, but even before the beach was closed there were only two sunbathers and a few people who had come to see the oil.
Even on parts of the beach that were open, health officials urged people not to fish or swim in 33 miles of once-pristine water.
"It's pretty ugly, there's no question about it," said Florida Gov. Charlie Crist.
Oil has also forced officials to close beaches elsewhere in Alabama and Louisiana over the past few months.
In response to the spill, the Obama administration is seeking to resurrect a six-month moratorium on deepwater drilling put in place after the April 20 explosion on the Deepwater Horizon rig that killed 11 workers and blew out the well 5,000 feet underwater. BP PLC was leasing the rig from owner Transocean Ltd.
U.S. District Judge Martin Feldman, who overturned the moratorium, on Thursday rejected a Justice Department request that he allow it to stay in place while officials appeal his ruling.
The Interior Department imposed the moratorium last month, halting approval of any new permits for deepwater projects and suspending drilling on 33 exploratory wells.
Interior Secretary Ken Salazar said he would issue a new order within the next few days imposing a moratorium that eliminates any doubt it is needed and appropriate.
Separately, a number of environmental groups asked the court to release additional information about Feldman's financial interests.
The judge's financial disclosure report for 2008, the most recent available, shows holdings in at least eight petroleum companies or funds that invest in them, including Transocean Ltd., which owned the Deepwater Horizon. The report shows most of his holdings were valued at less than $15,000; it did not provide specific amounts.
The environmental groups want to know whether Feldman has a financial interest that could be substantially affected by the outcome of the proceeding. If so, he could be forced to disqualify himself from the case.
Associated Press writers Lisa Leff in New Orleans, Curt Anderson in Miami, Melissa Nelson in Pensacola, Fla., Harry R. Weber in Atlanta and Brian Skoloff and Holbrook Mohr in Mississippi contributed to this report.
(This version CORRECTS that officials in Alabama, not Florida, have had to close beaches in past weeks.)