NEW ORLEANS, Louisiana (AFP) Ã¢â‚¬â€œ Choppy seas and high winds from Hurricane Alex were to disrupt Gulf of Mexico oil spill clean-up operations again Thursday, with large waves sweeping the slick into fragile marshes.
Hurricane Alex, the first of the Atlantic season, hit northeast Mexico with torrential rain and violent winds late Wednesday as a Category Two storm.
Alex struck land far from the area worst hit by the massive BP oil spill -- the coasts of Louisiana, Mississippi, Alabama and Florida -- but forecasters said that booming and skimming operations would again be canceled due to rough seas whipped up by the storm.
"The big focus of our operations right now would be on water skimming, trying to deal with the oil off shore as much as we can. We're being inhibited right now by the weather," said Coast Guard Admiral Thad Allen, the US pointman on the clean-up effort.
The forecast Thursday was for waves six feet (two meters) or higher -- too rough for skimming or even burning the oil in place, Allen told reporters on Wednesday.
The National Hurricane Center said at 0900 GMT Thursday that Alex's winds extended outward up to 25 miles (35 kilometers) from the eye, and tropical storm force winds extended out to 205 miles (335 kilometers), well into Texas.
Local officials were especially anxious to keep the Gulf beaches clean to attract tourists for the 4th of July independence day weekend.
Efforts to plug the leak by drilling relief wells were however unaffected, and two containment ships were still capturing the oil at a rate of about 25,000 barrels per day despite seven-foot swells.
But the rough seas delayed the deployment of a third vessel, the Helix Producer, aimed at doubling the amount of crude being contained. According to BP, the new system should be operational on July 7 or 8.
An estimated 35,000 to 60,000 barrels of oil a day has been gushing out of the ruptured well since the Deepwater Horizon drilling rig sank on April 22 some 50 miles off the coast of Louisiana.
Some 423 miles (681 kilometers) of US shorelines have now been oiled as crude gushes into the sea at an alarming rate, 10 weeks into the worst environmental disaster in US history.
Animal welfare groups meanwhile asked a federal court to halt "controlled burns" of the oil and sued BP for burning endangered sea turtles.
"It is horrifying that these innocent creatures whose habitat has already been devastated by the oil spill are now being burned alive," Animal Welfare Institute President Cathy Liss told the court in Louisiana Wednesday.
"Endangered sea turtles, including the Kemp's Ridley, one of the rarest sea turtles on Earth, are caught in the gathered oil and unable to escape when the oil is set ablaze," the animal welfare groups said.
US lawyer Kenneth Feinberg, who Obama named to administer BP's 20-billion-dollar claims fund, insisted that BP will "pay every eligible claim," but cautioned that many perceived damages may not qualify.
"I use that famous example of a restaurant in Boston that says, 'I can't get shrimp from Louisiana, and my menu suffers and my business is off,'" Feinberg told the House of Representatives Committee on Small Business on Wednesday.
"Well, no law is going to recognize that claim."
Feinberg said he was still sorting out how to deal with indirect claims like hotels that lose bookings because tourists think the beaches are covered in oil, or people who see their property values decline but live several blocks away from an oiled beach.
"There's no question that the property value has diminished as a result of the spill. That doesn't mean that every property is entitled to compensation," he said.
"There's not enough money in the world to pay everybody who'd like to have money," he said.
Feinberg, who headed a compensation fund for victims of the September 11, 2001 attacks, assured lawmakers the fund would be "totally independent" and said BP had agreed to top up the escrow account as needed to meet proper claims.
The British energy giant has already disbursed over 130 million dollars in emergency payments to fishermen and others affected by the slick. Feinberg said lump sum payments would be offered to claimants once the true extent of the damage was assessed.