OCEAN SPRINGS, Miss./CAMPECHE, Mexico (Reuters) - Large patches of thick oil from BP Plc’s Gulf of Mexico oil spill washed ashore in Mississippi for the first time on Sunday while the Atlantic hurricane season’s first named storm posed an uncertain threat to the gulf.
The oil spill, which began on April 20, has caused an economic and environmental disaster along the U.S. Gulf Coast, threatening fisheries, tourism and wildlife.
Tropical depression Alex moved into the southwestern gulf, prompting the closure of two key Mexican oil ports, and was likely on Monday to regain tropical storm status, the U.S. National Hurricane Center said.
Forecasters expect Alex to make landfall again as a hurricane early on Thursday between Brownsville, Texas, and Tuxpan de Rodriguez Cano in Mexico, sparing BP’s oil collection efforts in the Gulf.
The British newspaper the Sunday Times reported that BP’s drilling of relief wells, intended to plug its leaking deep-sea well, is going more quickly than expected and the company could stop the flow of oil in mid-July. That would be about two weeks earlier than BP’s current public projection of early August.
The newspaper cited sources with knowledge of the operation. A BP spokesperson declined to comment on the report and referred to a company statement on Friday that the two relief wells -- begun on May 2 and May 16 -- were estimated to take approximately three months to finish.
Louisiana’s fragile wetlands have been hardest hit by the oil but Mississippi had escaped damage until Sunday, although some oil had tainted its barrier islands. Oil has also come ashore in Alabama and Florida’s Gulf coast.
Oil from the spill hit two tourist beaches at Ocean Springs, about 10 miles east of Biloxi, Mississippi, and a beach used by fishermen close to an inland marsh.
Mississippi state officials and the U.S. Coast Guard, who said they expect more oil to arrive, were waiting on BP contractors to start cleaning up.
“We cannot clean up or catch the oil until BP gets here. They have all of our people,” said Earl Etheridge, a spokesman for Mississippi’s Department of Environmental Quality.
Alex, the first named storm of the 2010 Atlantic hurricane season, had sustained winds of 35 mph and was about 55 miles south-southwest of Campeche. The system was moving west-northwest at 9 mph.
Even if it misses the spill area, large waves could hamper clean-up efforts from Louisiana to Florida from the spill.
Shell Oil Co evacuated nonessential workers from production platforms and drilling rigs in U.S.-regulated areas of the Gulf oil fields on Saturday, anticipating Alex’s impact, and on Sunday shut subsea production at two platforms.
Meteorologists predict a very active Atlantic hurricane season, which runs from June 1 to November 30.
The U.S. government estimates that up to 60,000 barrels of oil (2.5 million gallons/9.5 million liters) per day are spewing from BP’s damaged well on the seabed about a mile below the surface.
While awaiting the completion of the relief wells to finally plug the leak, BP has been using two oil collection systems to prevent some of the oil from its ruptured well from spewing into the sea. BP said on Sunday its crews had collected or burned off 22,750 barrels of oil on Saturday.
Equipment going to the leak site this week could raise daily collection to 53,000 barrels, officials say, and a review is scheduled of a system that may boost it to 80,000 barrels.
The oil spill was a topic at a weekend meeting in Canada of leaders of the Group of 20 world’s biggest economies.
G20 sources said the summit communique included a reference to the spill and urged the sharing of best practices to protect marine life, prevent accidents and deal with the consequences when accidents occur.
Shares of BP have been savaged since the crisis started and fell another 6 percent to a 14-year low on Friday.
The costs to BP include but are not limited to a $20 billion compensation fund it set up under U.S. pressure. BP said it has paid out $2.35 billion so far in clean-up and compensation costs.
Additional reporting by Ernest Scheyder in Grande Isle, Sarah Young in London and Caren Bohan in Toronto; Writing by Jerry Norton; Editing by Will Dunham and Cynthia Osterman