As dozens of oil-soaked pelicans turned up on the Louisiana coast today, BP said it could take days before its "top cap" strategy stands a chance of controlling the oil that is still gushing into the Gulf of Mexico.
BP is preparing to lower a containment dome over the newly-cut pipe at the bottom of the Gulf. This morning, engineers successfully cut the lower marine riser pipe using giant shears, but it was a "more jagged cut" that could result in a less-effective seal with the dome, and that might allow more oil to escape, Coast Guard Adm. Thad Allen told reporters.
BP CEO Tony Hayward called the successful cut an "important milestone" this afternoon, but he said it would take 12 to 24 hours before the company knows if the containment dome has worked.
"Over the last 36 hours, we have cleared the riser from the top of the well head, and the team is currently working to complete the cleanup operation before we put the cap onto the top of the well," Hayward said.
Officials hope the weight of the 500-foot steel pipeline will force it snugly over the uneven pipe. In the meantime, the uncapped well is an open spigot, belching up to a million gallons of crude into the gulf every day.
Earlier, Allen had predicted that the leak could be largely sealed today.
"They've got the top hat containment device positioned over the top of the well head. And they will be able to lower that down on a lower marine riser package as soon as they make that cut, and that's connected to a ship on the surface," Allen said on ABC News' " Good Morning America," though he acknowledged technical difficulties could cause further delays.
On the Louisiana shore, meanwhile, dozens of oil-drenched birds have been spotted, struggling under a blanket of black sludge.
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"This is tragic, this is sad, this is literally why we are fighting for our way of life," Louisiana Gov. Bobby Jindal said after seeing an oiled brown pelican.
"We are not only concerned about this bird, but the future -- this bird was just taken off the national endangered species list and now you see the impact of this oil," he said.
Jindal again pressed for barrier islands to be built along the coast, saying that he is "ordering the dredges to be organized."
"We shouldn't have to see this oil coming into our wetlands," he said. "That's why we are not waiting for BP."
Today, Hayward said his company and the federal government have expanded their efforts to clean up the spill.
"We will be here for a very long time. We recognize that this is just the beginning," he said.
There are now 30,000 workers involved in the effort, Hayward said. Approximately 15,000 workers come from BP and the Coast Guard, while the remainder are either volunteers or National Guard.
On May 27, President Obama said there were 20,000 workers on the job.
Hayward added that 5,000 fishing vessels now are working to clean up oil, also a number higher than in previous reports.
In addition to the containment dome it is preparing, BP may use other methods to try to control the oil flow. Using the same infrastructure built for the failed top kill operation, it will attempt to siphon oil instead of to pump in mud. That technique could begin sometime next week.
Hayward said plans for relief wells are on target for August, and he responded to fears that a hurricane in the interim could force BP to abandon containment efforts.
"At the end of the month, we will introduce more permanent containment/production systems that will be fully sealed, which will be better able to deal with hurricanes," he said.
The cut-and-cap strategy is BP's seventh attempt at controlling the leak. Since it began the operation Tuesday, oil has been gushing out an estimated 800,000 gallons per day, which is 20 percent faster than previously.
Oil has hit at least 125 miles of the Gulf Coast. A slick sheen is just four miles from the Florida coast today, the Coast Guard said. Just yesterday, it was nine miles away from shore.
Allen said the Coast Guard has deployed resources to the Gulf Coast beaches and the "picket line" has been established.
"We are flying more boom back into Alabama this morning, and we have dispatched a group of Coast Guard cutters with skimming capabilities that are down there," Allen said. "We've got helicopters offshore that are doing surveillance, Coast Guard patrol boats we are using for command and control, working with vessels of opportunity. These are local fishermen we have brought on board to help us."
Along the coast, there has been some concern about the health of those fishermen. ABC's Chris Cuomo, who was in the Gulf just yesterday, heard firsthand that many of the fishermen getting sick are too scared to report their illnesses out of fear that they will be fired by BP.
Today, Cuomo set out to answer that question, asking directly -- would BP promise not to fire people who report illnesses? For most of the day the company did not provide a clear answer.
But after hours of reaching out to Unified Command, the Coast Guard and the White House, BP finally came forward with a statement late today which said "workers with health issues are encouraged to report their conditions without fear of reprisal."
There have been calls for a drastic response to the oil leak, some even suggesting a nuclear explosion to stop the blowout.
"The only technology we've ever had to deal with blowouts very severe is -- a very small-scale nuclear device -- right on top of the oil column, [detonating it] to en capsulate the stuff because it turns the earth into glass," said Matthew Simmons, an energy expert.
Both BP and officials in Washington said a controlled nuclear blast is not on the table.
"That hasn't been seriously briefed to me," Allen told "Good Morning America." "I think we have to run out of a lot of things before we consider something like that. I think that's really on the peripheral of things we ought to be talking about right now."
ABC News' Brian Hartman and Kate McCarthy contributed to this report.