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BP given until Friday to provide backup plans for oil recovery

By the CNN Wire Staff
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STORY HIGHLIGHTS
  • NEW: Salazar defends 6-month moratorium on deepwater drilling
  • BP told to come up with contingency plans in case of operational failure, bad weather
  • BP says 2.4 million gallons of oil collected so far
  • Democrats renew push for legislation that would remove liability caps on oil spills

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New Orleans, Louisiana (CNN) -- Federal authorities have given BP until Friday to devise contingency plans for the continued collection of gushing oil into a containment cap in the event of an operational failure or severe weather.

In a letter written Tuesday, the government's on-scene administrator, Coast Guard Rear Adm. James Watson, instructed BP Chief Operating Officer Doug Suttles to lay out a process for the recovery of oil spewing into the Gulf of Mexico.

"BP shall provide the plans for these parallel, continuous and contingency collection processes, including an implementation timeline, within 72 hours of receiving this letter," Watson wrote. "Current collection efforts may not be interrupted to implement these plans."

The deadline came as Coast Guard Adm. Thad Allen said Wednesday that slightly more than 15,000 barrels of oil -- more than 630,000 gallons -- had been recovered from the ruptured BP well in the 24 hours ending Tuesday at midnight.

BP said it has collected about 57,500 barrels (2.4 million gallons) of oil since last week, when it placed a loose-fitting containment cap atop its ruptured well.

High-resolution video of oil leak released Video

In addition to the letter to Suttles, Allen has written to BP Chief Executive Officer Tony Hayward asking for the development of better redundancies in the company's short- and long-term containment plans.

Allen highlighted concerns over BP's ability to effectively process damage claims associated with the Gulf disaster and asked Hayward to provide more detailed information, including claim numbers and personal identifiers such as the last four digits of Social Security numbers.

"Access to this level of detail is critical to informing the public as to how BP is meeting its obligations as a responsible corporation," Allen wrote.

Also Wednesday, Suttles denied that BP has ordered cleanup workers not to talk to reporters.

"Recent media reports have suggested that individuals involved in the cleanup operation have been prohibited from speaking to the media, and this is simply untrue," he said in a letter e-mailed to CNN by a company spokesman.

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Asked about reports from BP employees that they had been forbidden to talk to reporters, Suttles said that it might take some time before all 25,000 people working for BP are made aware of the policy.

On Capitol Hill, oil drilling issues took center stage on Day 51 of the disaster as lawmakers debated everything from safety to cleanup to liability.

Interior Secretary Ken Salazar defended the Obama administration's six-month moratorium on deepwater drilling, which has come under fire from critics who argue that the drilling is vital for reducing the dependence on foreign oil and key to the region's economic health.

"It was our view that we press the pause button ... not the stop button," Salazar told the Senate Committee on Energy and Natural Resources. "It's a pause button so that we can make sure that we move forward with OCS [outer continental shelf] drilling -- that it can be done in a way that is protective of people and protective of the environment as well."

Salazar and Deputy Interior Secretary David Hayes said government scientists estimate the spill's flow rate after last week's cut of the well's riser pipe increased by 4 percent to 5 percent. That's well below an increase of as much as 20 percent that administration officials had indicated could happen.

As the environmental crisis worsens, states are tracking the disaster's health impact, including respiratory and skin irritation problems in Louisiana and Alabama, health officials said.

The Louisiana Department of Health and Hospitals is aware of 71 cases of oil spill-related illness as of Wednesday, said state health officer Dr. Jimmy Guidry. Of those cases, 50 involved workers on oil rigs or who participated in cleanup efforts, and 21 came from the general public.

Symptoms included throat irritation, cough, chest pain, headaches and shortness of breath, he said. Eight workers were hospitalized, for an average of one day each, the department said.

Monitoring of Louisiana's air has not found chemicals from oil that would cause a large negative health impact, Guidry said.

In Alabama, 15 cases of illness have been reported, said Dr. Don Williamson, state health officer.

Florida, Mississippi and Texas have received no reports of illness connected to the oil spill, officials in those states said.

Top congressional Democrats renewed their push Wednesday for legislation that would remove oil spill liability caps -- a move some Republicans warned would lead to stronger monopolies in the energy sector while increasing U.S. dependence on foreign oil sources.

Among other things, Democrats are targeting the 1990 Oil Pollution Act, which could limit BP's liability for economic damages caused by the Gulf disaster to $75 million.

"If you or I ... got into an accident that we caused, [we'd be] responsible for all the damages," said Sen. Barbara Boxer, D-California, chairwoman of the Environment and Public Works Committee. There would be "no caps in that case, and there should be no caps in this case."

President Obama plans to visit the Gulf Coast again next week.

His Monday and Tuesday itineraries will include stops in Mississippi, Alabama and Florida, the White House announced. It will be his fourth trip to the region since the gusher began in late April.

Government and BP officials are under increasing pressure from fishermen and officials, members of Congress and environmental advocacy groups to stop the relentless flow of oil into the Gulf.

The disaster has spurred grass-roots action. Hands Across the Sand and Sierra Club leaders announced Wednesday a "National Day of Action" for June 26, when they will call on Americans to gather on beaches across the country and hold hands for 15 minutes in opposition to offshore drilling.

Federal agencies responsible for monitoring the toll to wildlife said Wednesday that 442 oiled birds have been collected alive; 633 were dead. The report said 50 sea turtles have been collected alive; 272 were dead.

CNN's Ed Hornick contributed to this report.

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