BOOTHVILLE, La. – There is still a hole in the Earth, crude oil is still spewing from it and there is still, excruciatingly, no end in sight. After trying and trying again, one of the world's largest corporations, backed and pushed by the world's most powerful government, can't stop the runaway gusher.
As desperation grows and ecological misery spreads, the operative word on the ground now is, incredibly, August — the earliest moment that a real resolution could be at hand. And even then, there's no guarantee of success. For the United States and the people of its beleaguered Gulf Coast, a dispiriting summer of oil and anger lies dead ahead.
Oh ... and the Atlantic hurricane season begins Tuesday.
The latest attempt — using a remote robotic arm to stuff golf balls and assorted debris into the gash in the seafloor — didn't work. On Sunday, as churches echoed with prayers for a solution, BP PLC said it would focus on containment rather than plugging the undersea puncture wound, effectively redirecting the mess it made rather than stopping it. Yet the new plan carries the risk of making the torrent worse, as top government officials warned Sunday.
"We failed to wrestle this beast to the ground," said BP Managing Director Bob Dudley, doing the rounds of the Sunday talk shows.
As the oil washes ashore, crude-coated birds have become a frequent sight. At the sea's bottom, no one knows what the oil will do to species like the newly discovered bottom-dwelling pancake batfish — and others that remain unknown but just as threatened.
Scientists from several universities have reported large underwater plumes of oil stretching for miles and reaching hundreds of feet beneath the Gulf's surface, though BP PLC CEO Tony Hayward on Sunday disputed their findings, saying the company's tests found no such evidence of oily clouds underwater.
"The oil is on the surface," Hayward said. "Oil has a specific gravity that's about half that of water. It wants to get to the surface because of the difference in specific gravity."
Perhaps most alarming of all, 40 days after the Deepwater Horizon blew up and began the underwater deluge, hurricane season is at hand. It brings the horrifying possibility of wind-whipped, oil-soaked waves and water spinning ashore and coating areas much farther inland. Imagine Katrina plus oil spill.
The spill is already the worst in American history — worse, even, than the 1989 Exxon Valdez disaster. It has already released between 18 million and 40 million gallons of oil into the Gulf, according to government estimates.
"This is probably the biggest environmental disaster we've ever faced in this country," White House Energy and Climate Change Advisor Carol Browner said on NBC's "Meet the Press."
At some point — the widespread debut of the BP "spillcam" is as good a delineation point as any — this tipped, in the national conversation, from a destructive event into a calamitous, open-ended saga. And for the bruised and cantankerous American psyche, it could not come at a worse time.
Fear is everywhere, and polarization prevails. Faith in institutions — corporations, government, the media — is down. Americans are angry, and they long ago grew accustomed to expecting the resolution of problems in very short order, even if reality rarely works that way.
So when something undefined and uncontrollable happens, they speculate in all the modern forums about collusion and nefarious dealings. In the process, this tale of environmental disaster and economic damage cripples the sea-to-shining-sea narrative that usually offers Americans comfort during uncertain times.
"There are people who are getting desperate, and there are more getting anxious as we get further into the shrimping season and there is less chance they will recover," said the Rev. Theodore Turner, 57, at Mount Olive Baptist Church in Boothville, near where oil first washed ashore. Fishermen make up about a third of his congregation.
BP's next containment effort involves an assortment of undersea robot maneuvers that would redirect the oil up and out of the water it is poisoning.
The first step in BP's latest effort is the intricate removal of a damaged riser that brought oil to the surface of the Deepwater Horizon rig. The riser will be cut at the top of the crippled blowout preventer, creating a flat surface that a new containment valve can seal against.
The valve would force the oil into a new riser, bringing it up to a ship. The seal, however, would not prevent all oil from escaping. White House energy czar Carol Browner said Sunday the effort could result in a temporary 20 percent increase in the flow. BP has said it didn't expect a significant increase in flow from the cutting and capping plan.
If the containment valve fails, BP may try installing a blowout preventer on top of the existing one.
In the end, however, a relief well would ease the pressure on the runaway gusher in favor of a controlled pumping — essentially what the Deepwater Horizon was trying to do in the first place. But that will take at least two months.
Using government figures, if the leak continues at its current pace and is stopped on Aug. 1, 51 million to 106 million gallons will have spilled.
"They are going to destroy south Louisiana. We are dying a slow death here," said Billy Nungesser, president of Plaquemines Parish, La.
Coastal tent cities are about to rise to house the workers and contractors minimizing the damage. Sand banks and barriers are being built. But the consensus around the Gulf Coast is turning more apoplectic and apocalyptic. This is, people are starting to say, a generational event — tragic to this generation, potentially crippling to the next.
"The oil spill is part of prophecy," said Turner, the Louisiana minister. "The Bible prophesized hardships. If we believe the word of God is true — and we do — we also know that in addition to prophecying hardships he promised to take care of us."
The Obama administration, which has been grilled for not taking the reins sooner, sought to assure the public.
"I am resolute and confident that we will see a better day ahead of us," Interior Secretary Ken Salazar said Saturday. And yet that statement, stacked up against the word "August," tempers the optimism for many watching this saga unfold.
They see a dissembling corporation, an ineffective government and an ocean surface covered by a viscous shell with the consistency of molasses and the peril of poison. To them, it comes down to only this: There is still a hole in the Earth. Crude oil is still spewing from it. And there is still, excruciatingly, no end in sight.
AP Writers Ben Nuckols, Seth Borenstein, Matthew Brown and Melissa Nelson contributed to this report. Anthony reported from New York.
COVINGTON, La. – BP spokesman John Curry says the company does not know how much oil is contained the vast reservoir nearly three miles beneath the seafloor.
Curry said Sunday that the company didn't have time to properly analyze how much was in the discovery well. He says if the oil rig had not exploded, BP PLC ultimately would have drilled another well to complete that analysis.
Curry says the uncertainty over how much oil is in the reservoir does not change BP's response. The company has been trying to stop the gusher for nearly six weeks and the realization that oil could be flowing into the Gulf for months is setting in for Gulf coast residents.
NICE, France – Piracy, terrorism and climate change get prime billing but business is the linchpin at a summit between France and African leaders that begins Monday.
Not on the agenda but a clear subtext is President Nicolas Sarkozy's desire to assure broader influence and greater economic weight for France in Africa — seen as a new frontier for profit-making a half-century after France lost 14 African colonies to independence.
Many of those countries are now looking to China for trade and investment.
The dictatorships, conflicts, corruption and poverty that have plagued African nations for decades and define their image in the West are reduced to sideline events at the two-day summit, which includes the heads of state or government from 38 countries in Africa.
French Foreign Minister Bernard Kouchner hosted African counterparts for a pre-summit meeting Sunday in the Riviera city of Nice under heavy security. Helicopters patrolled the venue while police blocked off streets and hotels where the leaders are staying.
Sarkozy is "renovating" the Africa-France summit, in its 25th year, by also inviting some 230 business leaders from Africa and France to the Riviera city of Nice. The move has angered aid groups, who fear the summit will take a purely financial view of development.
France's No. 2 government minister, Jean-Louis Borloo, recently called Africa "our El Dorado" — a legendary city of gold.
The line between casting off France's colonial-era ties and profiting from them is delicate. France plans to invite African troops to take part in its grandiose Bastille Day military parade July 14 to recognize the role troops from French colonies played in fighting for France during both the first and second World Wars.
Yet Sarkozy insists there's no room at the summit for nostalgia.
"Fifty years after independence and in a context of globalization, no one, neither Africans nor French, would understand" profit grounded in the colonial legacy, Sarkozy told the weekly Les Afriques. "The reality is that between France and Africa today there are numerous common interests and objective reasons to freely rebuild a close relationship."
Another reality is the growing presence in Africa of China, India, Brazil and even Iran, along with allies like the United States. Many of those nations are moving full speed ahead to scoop up Africa's natural resources, make trade and win contracts to build infrastructure.
In French-speaking countries, mainly in north and west Africa, France must live down its past as a colonial ruler that imposed its culture, injected massive aid and profited economically, often through networks that fed corrupt regimes.
That special French relationship — which endured after independence and is known as "Francafrique" — "is not over at all, not at all," said Africa specialist Alain Antil of the French Institute for International Relations.
But "its networks are certainly less powerful" than in the past, he said, and France is keen to evolve into a primary partner on other, non-French-speaking parts of the continent.
An Elysee Palace official said Sarkozy is more interested in bilateral talks with leaders of countries not in the circle of former colonies. Among those leaders attending is South African President Jacob Zuma.
"There is still a complex in France, a bit of envy" toward the British Commonwealth, which developed economic ties within its sphere of influence rather than accenting cultural ties as France did, Antil said.
Yet aid groups worry about using free enterprise as a means of development.
"We have real concerns because the word 'corruption' doesn't appear in (summit) documents, the word 'transparency' doesn't appear," said Brice Mackosso of the Brazzaville-based association Publish What You Pay, which acts like a watchdog for shady corporate practices.
France invited union representatives in a bid to open the forum and wants business leaders at the summit to develop a charter of good behavior in Africa.
Only one African country was not invited to the summit — Madagascar, the Indian Ocean island where a 2009 coup toppled an elected president.
Notable absent leaders include Sudanese President Omar al-Bashir, sought by the International Criminal Court for allegedly masterminding atrocities in Darfur. Zimbabwe's President Robert Mugabe, facing EU sanctions travel restrictions, also was not invited.
Egyptian President Hosni Mubarak co-presides with Sarkozy over the Nice summit. The 2013 edition of the summit is to be held in Egypt.