Alex hampers oil cleanup efforts in gulf
VENICE, La., July 1 (UPI) -- Cleanup of the BP oil spill was disrupted as Alex, now a tropical storm, crossed the Gulf of Mexico hundreds of miles from the recovery effort, officials said.
U.S. Coast Guard Rear Adm. Paul Zukunft said Coast Guard officials would conduct a survey by air to assess Alex's impact Thursday, CNN reported.
Speaking to reporters at the White House Thursday, National Incident Commander Thad Allen said swells generated by Alex forced a delay in bringing a third production vessel, the Helix Producer, into the operation. Once the vessel is online, he said, the cleanup operation should be able to capture up to 53,000 barrels of oil per day.
"We will need about three days after the weather calms … for that vessel to be able to hook up to the flexible coupling that it will be required to do. So we're looking at somewhere around mid-week next week to bring the third production vessel online."
Allen said crews recovered 23,000 barrels Wednesday.
The oil skimming and recovery operation on and near the shore "has been significantly hampered by the weather," Allen said.
"The small vessels that do the skimming have a difficult time operating out there; we had to pull them back," he said. "The same with the vessels operating in and around the well site itself."
More than 500 oil skimming ships were forced to return to shore because of the storm, Zukunft said Wednesday. Efforts to burn oil on the surface and break it down using dispersants were suspended, as were plans to position a third ship to collect oil at the spill site, he said. However, drilling relief wells continued.
On Grand Isle, La., work was suspended for safety reasons as waters became rough, officials told The (New Orleans) Times-Picayune.
Joe Higgins, senior government liaison and command representative for the Coast Guard, said safety is the top priority in cleanup and recovery efforts. Decision-makers meet every morning to assess conditions to assure the crews' safety is not at risk, he said.
"It's extremely frustrating," Higgins said. "We're here to stop the oil from coming in and to clean it up if it does. If we're not doing that, we're not doing our job."
The Transocean Deepwater Horizon rig leased by BP exploded April 20, killing 11 workers, and sank two days later, spewing oil into the gulf since.
While the hurricane, now downgraded to a tropical storm, could have some positive effects on the oil by acting as a non-toxic, natural dispersant, Tulane University scientist Alex Kolker warned the effect also could harm cleanup efforts by making the oil harder to track.
"Predicting where this stuff is going is notoriously hard," Kolker told CNN.
The storm also is impacting the path of the spill, officials said. Before Alex, some oil had reached Pensacola Beach in Florida, but the storm's southeast winds have drawn oil toward the environmentally sensitive Mississippi and Chandeleur sounds off the Mississippi and Louisiana coasts, Zukunft said.
Alex in Mexico, no longer a hurricane
MIAMI, July 1 (UPI) -- Alex, blamed for at least one death in Mexico, was downgraded Thursday to a tropical storm but still threatened to produce up to a foot of rain, officials said.
Thousands of people in Mexico and Texas sought shelter from the storm as Alex moved inland, knocking out power for customers on both sides of the border and causing many activities to be canceled, CNN reported.
Mexican officials said a contractor in Monterrey died when a wall fell on him because of the rain produced by Alex. At least three people died in the collapse of a wall in Acapulco, on the country's Pacific coast, but officials did not say if the fatalities were related to Alex.
At 5 p.m. EDT Thursday, the National Hurricane Center in Miami said Alex was about 220 miles west of La Pesca, Mexico, and about 95 miles east-northeast of Zacatecas, Mexico, with top sustained winds of 40 mph. The storm was moving westward at 13 mph and was expected to continue moving on that track before dissipating overnight.
No coastal watches or warnings were in effect but a tornado watch was posted for south Texas until 9 p.m. EDT.
Alex could produce an additional 3-6 inches of rain over portions of northern and central Mexico, which could cause life-threatening flash floods and mudslides, the NHC said. In southern Texas, Alex could dump another 2-4 inches of rain that could lead to flash floods.
The warnings for high winds, heavy rain and possible tornadoes prompted people along the Texas coast to board up homes and businesses and take shelter from the storm, the Brownsville (Texas) Herald reported. Tornadoes were reported in several counties, emergency officials said.
President Barack Obama declared 19 Texas counties a disaster area Tuesday, qualifying them for Federal Emergency Management Agency assistance. Texas Gov. Rick Perry made a disaster proclamation for the same region Monday.
Alex could affect cleanup operations on the BP oil disaster more than 600 miles away because it caused heavy seas across the Gulf of Mexico, CNN reported. The storm has already caused crews to stop using containment booms to prevent oil from reaching the shore, Coast Guard Rear Adm. Paul Zukunft said Wednesday.
Obama signs Iran Sanctions Act
WASHINGTON, July 1 (UPI) -- U.S. President Barack Obama Thursday signed into law the Iran Sanctions Act, imposing stricter sanctions on Tehran in response to its nuclear program.
In a signing ceremony at the White House, the president said one of his administration's highest priorities is to prevent the spread of nuclear weapons, and the United States and its allies have "strengthened the global non-proliferation regime, including the cornerstone of our efforts -- the Nuclear Non-Proliferation Treaty." He said Iran is the only signatory to the treaty "that has been unable to convince the International Atomic Energy Agency that its nuclear program is for peaceful purposes."
Obama said Iran has failed to honor its commitments and defied U.N. Security Council resolutions on its nuclear program.
"Consistent with the Security Council mandate, this legislation strengthens existing sanctions, authorizes new ones and supports our multilateral diplomatic strategy to address Iran's nuclear programs," he said. "It makes it harder for the Iranian government to purchase refined petroleum and the goods, services and materials to modernize Iran's oil and natural gas sector. It makes it harder for the Revolutionary Guards and banks that support Iran's nuclear programs and terrorism to engage in international finance. It says to companies seeking procurement contracts with the United States government -- if you want to do business with us, you first have to certify that you're not doing prohibited business with Iran."
Obama said if Iran persists "the pressure will continue to mount, and its isolation will continue to deepen."
"There should be no doubt -- the United States and the international community are determined to prevent Iran from acquiring nuclear weapons," he said.
Netanyahu seeks direct talks with Abbas
TEL AVIV, Israel, July 1 (UPI) -- Israeli Prime Minister Binyamin Netanyahu in Tel Aviv Thursday asked Palestinian Authority President Mahmoud Abbas for direct, face-to-face peace talks.
"I am ready to begin them any time. I am ready to meet today, tomorrow, the next day. In any place," Netanyahu said in a speech during a celebration of Independence Day at the U.S. Embassy in Tel Aviv, The Jerusalem Post reported.
"On the Fourth of July, Americans celebrate their independence. But America's independence is something all free nations can and should celebrate, because all free nations are indebted to the United States," Netanyahu said.
"The only way to complete peace negotiations (is) to begin them. And the only way to begin them (is) to have the two parties sit across from one another and directly negotiate these complex issues together. Let's not wait 15 months before we sit down together. This is a great hope, and a great challenge."