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New cap halts flow of oil for first time since April

Off the coast of Gulf Shores Thursday, more oil – both a light sheen and darker patches of fresher oil – were encroaching the beach for the first time in days, even as vacationers continued to enjoy the summer sun.

But there was good news Thursday afternoon: For the first time since April, BP officials announced oil had stopped flowing from the underwater well that was damaged in an explosion three months ago. A new cap over the leak was still being tested late Thursday.

“We’re encouraged by this development, but this isn’t over,” incident commander Adm. Thad Allen said in a statement. “Over the next several hours we will continue to collect data and work with the federal science team to analyze this information and perform additional seismic mapping runs in the hopes of gaining a better understanding on the condition of the well bore and options for temporary shut in of the well during a hurricane. It remains likely that we will return to the containment process using this new stacking cap connected to the risers to attempt to collect up to 80,000 barrels of oil per day until the relief well is completed.”

On a reconnaissance mission along the coast Thursday, National Guard and Coast Guard officials spotted oil sheen and other patches of oil – some already reddened by dispersants – near Gulf Shores. They alerted officials on the ground, who quickly directed oil recovery vessels to the sites. Those boats – called Vessels of Opportunity by the Coast Guard – are often fishing boats in need of other work because of the oil spill. Working in pairs, they drag boom through the oil to try to absorb and contain it.

Coast Guard Third Class Petty Officer Will Jones, a spotter on Thursday’s flight, said he had not seen that much oil in several days. “I’ve been up here a total 30 hours so far” over multiple missions, he said. “I haven’t seen anything this bad.”

Jones said the wind current was likely pushing more oil toward shore.

National Guard pilot Capt. Chadd Tillman said he was glad to be able to help dispatch the boats.

“Today was different for me,” he said. “I’ve mostly been doing boom reconnaissance. Today we actually did find something and were able to move the boats there.”

The communication with boats on the ground has been crucial to getting oil cleaned up quickly, National Guard and Coast Guard officials said.

“It’s improving every day,” pilot Brad Howard said. “We keep getting better equipment.”

Military officials make the reconnaissance flights every day, searching for oil along the coast. Flights originating in Mobile patrol from Dauphin Island to the Florida line.

“It’s heartbreaking to see,” Tillman said. “I’m a local guy. We’re all somewhat frustrated by the situation. But we will do what we can do.”

Click to view a GALLERY of Greenville Advocate photos of the Gulf Coast from a Blackhawk helicopter.