VENICE, La/HOUSTON (Reuters) - The U.S. government threatened on Sunday to remove BP from efforts to seal a blown-out oil well in the Gulf of Mexico if it doesn't do enough to stop the leak, though it acknowledged only the company and the oil industry have the know-how to halt the deepwater spill.
The Coast Guard said on Sunday that over 65 miles (110 kms) of Gulf Coast has experienced "shoreline impact" and less than half of it could be cleaned up relatively quickly, underscoring the growing ecological toll of the disaster.
U.S. Interior Secretary Ken Salazar said Washington is frustrated and angry that BP Plc missed "deadline after deadline" in its efforts to seal the well more than a month after an oil rig explosion triggered the disaster.
"I am angry and I am frustrated that BP has been unable to stop this oil from leaking and to stop the pollution from spreading. We are 33 days into this effort and deadline after deadline has been missed," Salazar said after visiting BP's U.S. headquarters in Houston on Sunday.
"If we find they're not doing what they're supposed to be doing, we'll push them out of the way appropriately," he told reporters as the administration maintained its hard line.
Salazar's strong comments followed President Barack Obama's on Saturday, when he blamed the spill on "a breakdown of responsibility" at BP. The unfolding disaster has become a top priority on Obama's crowded domestic agenda.
The chief of the Coast Guard, Admiral Thad Allen, acknowledged on Sunday that the government is forced to rely on BP and the private oil sector to try to plug the gusher. At the same time, BP said the containment method it was attempting on the ocean floor was capturing much less of the leaking oil than three days ago.
Company engineers were readying other short-term solutions, the next one expected to start late on Tuesday. But BP Managing Director Bob Dudley said there was "no certainty" of success at the unprecedented depths at which they were being tried -- one mile (1.6 km) down in the Gulf of Mexico.
More than a month after a rig explosion triggered what Obama has described as an environmental disaster and "BP's mess," oil is still spewing virtually unchecked from BP's ruptured Macondo seabed well.
At a time of mounting U.S. government and public criticism of the company and its executives over the catastrophic spill, Allen said he trusted BP Chief Executive Tony Hayward, who has made comments downplaying its size and environmental impact.
Sheets of heavy oil have washed ashore in Louisiana's fragile marshlands and lesser "oil debris" has also reached the coasts of Mississippi and Alabama in what is seen as an ecological and economic calamity for the U.S. Gulf Coast.
Given the lack of a solution so far and the doubts over BP, Allen was asked on CNN's "State of the Union" why the U.S. government did not completely take over the spill containment operation from the London-based firm.
"What makes this an unprecedented anomalous event is access to the discharge site is controlled by the technology that was used for the drilling, which is owned by the private sector," Allen said. "They have the eyes and ears that are down there. They are necessarily the modality by which this is going to get solved," he added.
Asked too about the apparent growing U.S. lack of confidence in Hayward, Allen said: "I trust Tony Hayward. When I talk to him, I get an answer."
BP has deployed a long suction tube down to the larger of two leaks from the well, but a BP spokesman said on Sunday this captured only 1,360 barrels per day of oil over the 24 hours to midnight Saturday. The flow has been declining from the 5,000 barrels (210,000 gallons/795,000 litres) per day the company had said the tube was siphoning off three days ago.
BP engineers are now preparing a "top kill," pumping heavy fluids into the well to try to shut it off, an operation to begin late Tuesday or early Wednesday, Dudley told CNN.
Many scientists believe the Gulf spill has already eclipsed the 11 million gallons (41 million litres) spilt by the 1989 Exxon Valdez tanker accident in Alaska. They warn the spreading oil could be caught in a powerful ocean current that could take it to the Florida Keys, Cuba and the U.S. East Coast.
Coast Guard Admiral Mary Landry said 65.6 miles (106 km) of shoreline has been impacted so far and about 30 acres (12 hectares) of marshland.
She told a briefing that of the area affected on the coast "25 miles ... are really readily cleanable and the others are a little harder access but we'll get to it."
Of the impacted marshland about half of it has heavily oiled she said the rest "lightly oiled with sheen."
PRAYERS TO GOD
Churchgoers in Louisiana coastal parishes affected by the spill prayed for God's help. "You (God) can clear that oil up, because that oil was down there thousands of years before it came up in the Gulf. So you know what to do with it, dear God," retired oyster fisherman Herbert Guidry prayed in the New Mount Pilgrim Baptist Church in Houma.
Analysts say growing ecological and economic damage from the spill could become a political liability for Obama before November congressional elections.
While also promising to hold Washington accountable for proper oversight of the industry, Obama ramped up pressure on companies linked to the spill: BP, Halliburton and Transocean Ltd. He believed a "breakdown of responsibility" between them led to the disaster.
BP stocks have taken a beating in the markets in the month since the well blowout and rig explosion that killed 11 workers and touched off the spill. Its share price shed another 4 percent on Friday in London, extending recent sharp losses.