Ice-like crystals encrusting a 100-ton steel-and-concrete box meant to contain oil gushing from a broken well deep in the Gulf of Mexico forced crews to back off the long-shot plan, while more than 160 kilometres away, blobs of tar washed up at an Alabama beach full of swimmers.

The failure in the first attempt to use the specially constructed containment box over the leak 80 kilometres off the Louisiana coast, coupled with the ominous arrival of the sticky substance at Dauphin Island, Alabama, crushed hopes of a short-term solution to what could yet grow into the worst oil spill in the nation’s history.

More than 3 million gallons (11 million litters) of crude have spewed into the Gulf since a rig exploded April 20, killing 11, and officials said it would be at least Monday before a different solution is found.

Authorities in protective gear descended on the public beach on Dauphin Island, five kilometres off the Alabama mainland at the mouth of Mobile Bay and much farther east than oil had been reported.

About a half dozen tar balls had been collected by yesterday afternoon at Dauphin Island, Coast Guard chief warrant officer Adam Wine said in Mobile. Authorities planned to test the substance but strongly suspected it came from the oil spill.

The containment box, a method never before attempted at such depths, had been considered the best hope of stanching the flow in the near term.

“I wouldn’t say it’s failed yet,” BP chief operating officer Doug Suttles said. “What I would say is what we attempted to do last night didn’t work.”

More In: International | News