New drilling on hold as Gulf spill oil washes up
Associated Press Writer
Vail, CO Colorado
MOUTH OF THE MISSISSIPPI RIVER – Oil from a massive spill in the Gulf of Mexico oozed into Louisiana’s ecologically rich wetlands Friday as storms threatened to frustrate desperate protection efforts. The White House put a hold on any new offshore oil projects until safeguards are in place to prevent rig explosions like the one that caused the spill.
Boats patrolled coastal marshes early Friday looking for areas where the oil has flowed in, the Coast Guard said, and the state of Louisiana diverted thousands of gallons of fresh water from the Mississippi River to try to flush out the wetlands, though that effort was being hampered by wind.
The Louisiana National Guard prepared to send communication equipment, boats, all-terrain vehicles and other equipment to help.
The National Weather Service predicted winds, high tides and waves through Sunday that could push oil deep into the inlets, ponds and lakes that line the boot of southeastern Louisiana. Seas of 6 to 7 feet were pushing tides several feet above normal toward the coast, compounded by thunderstorms expected in the area Friday.
An animal rescue operation at Fort Jackson, about 70 miles southeast of New Orleans, had its first patient Friday, a young northern gannett found offshore.
The bird is normally white with a yellow head and long, pointed beak but was covered in thick, black oil. Workers with Delaware-based Tri-State Bird Rescue and Research used Dawn blue dishwashing soap to scrub it.
Volunteers started arriving in Venice, La., though there wasn’t much for them to do because the weather was so bad. About two dozen workers in hard hats and lifejackets were stuck on shore at a marina, lounging on small work boats, some laden with boom, ready to go to work. Some smoked cigarettes and spat sunflower seeds as they waited for assignments.
Volunteer Valerie Gonsoulin, a 51-year-old kayaker from Lafayette who wore an “America’s Wetlands” hat, said she hoped to help spread containment booms to hold back the oil.
“I go out in the marshes three times a week. It’s my peace and serenity,” she said. “I’m horrified. … I’ve been sitting here watching that NASA image grow and it grows. I knew it would hit every place I fish and love.”
President Barack Obama on Friday directed that no new offshore oil drilling leases be issued unless rigs have new safeguards. Obama ordered Interior Secretary Ken Salazar to report within 30 days on what new technologies are needed.
“We are making sure any leases going forward have those safeguards,” said Obama at a White House Rose Garden event. He recently lifted a drilling moratorium for many offshore areas, including the Atlantic and Gulf.
Meanwhile, the Pentagon approved the use of two Air Force planes to dump chemicals on the oil spill, which civilian planes have already been doing.
The Navy also sent equipment for the cleanup, and Pentagon officials were talking with the Department of Homeland Security to figure out what other help the military could give.
Obama reassured Gulf Coast communities that the federal government is “fully prepared” to meet its responsibilities to them as the spill gets worse.
The leak from a blown-out well a mile underwater is five times bigger than first believed. More than 200,000 gallons of oil a day are spewing from the site of the rig, which was operated by BP and owned by Transocean Ltd. It sank two days after the explosion.
The Coast Guard is working with BP to deploy floating booms, skimmers and chemical dispersants, and has set controlled fires to burn the oil off the water’s surface.
Faint fingers of oily sheen began reaching the Mississippi River delta late Thursday, lapping the Louisiana shoreline in long, thin lines. Thicker oil was farther offshore. Officials have said they would do everything to keep the Mississippi River open to traffic.
The Coast Guard defended the federal response so far. Asked on all three network television morning shows Friday whether the government has done enough to push oil company BP PLC to plug the underwater leak and protect the coast, Coast Guard Rear Adm. Sally Brice-O’Hara said the response led by the Coast Guard has been rapid, sustained and has adapted as the threat grew.
Brice-O’Hara was also asked on ABC’s “Good Morning America” about the possibility of dispersing chemicals about a mile beneath the surface to break up oil. She replied: “That is a technology that is in new stages. We are working closely with our scientific support from NOAA, and there will be careful scrutiny. But if it has applicability, which we think it does, we want to get that in place very quickly.”
The oil slick could become the nation’s worst environmental disaster in decades, threatening to eclipse even the worst oil spill in U.S. history, the Exxon Valdez, the grounded tanker that leaked 11 million gallons in Alaska’s Prince William Sound in 1989. The sheen measured about 70 miles by 130 miles as of Thursday, and officials expected to update that figure Friday.
It imperils hundreds of species of fish, birds and other wildlife along the Gulf Coast, one of the world’s richest seafood grounds, teeming with shrimp, oysters and other marine life.
“This is a very, very big thing,” David Kennedy, of the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration, told The Associated Press about the spill. “And the efforts that are going to be required to do anything about it, especially if it continues on, are just mind-boggling.”
Volunteers were preparing to help wildlife that might be affected. Oil clumps seabirds’ feathers, leaving them without insulation – and when they preen, they swallow it. Prolonged contact with the skin can cause burns, said Nils Warnock, a spill recovery supervisor with the California Oiled Wildlife Care Network at the University of California-Davis. Oil swallowed by animals can cause anemia, hemorrhaging and other problems, said Jay Holcomb, executive director of the International Bird Rescue Research Center in California.
BP shares continued falling early Friday. Shares were down 2 percent in early trading on the London Stock Exchange, a day after dropping 7 percent in London. In New York on Thursday, BP shares fell $4.78 to close at $52.56, taking the fall in the company’s market value to about $25 billion since the explosion.
BP has requested more resources from the Defense Department, especially underwater equipment that might be better than what is commercially available. A BP executive said the corporation would “take help from anyone.” That includes fishermen who could be hired to help deploy containment boom.
The Coast Guard and BP have at least six remotely operated vehicles working to close an underwater valve meant to keep the oil from reaching the surface. Meanwhile, crews are drilling a relief well that will essentially suck the oil away from the original well, decreasing the pressure and slowing the leak, though that could take up to three months.
Louisiana Gov. Bobby Jindal declared a state of emergency and asked the federal government if he could call up 6,000 National Guard troops to help. Florida Gov. Charlie Crist declared a state of emergency for the state’s Panhandle.
Associated Press writers Holbrook Mohr in Venice, La., Phuong Le in Seattle, Janet McConnaughey, Kevin McGill, Michael Kunzelman and Brett Martel in New Orleans, Melinda Deslatte in Baton Rouge and Pauline Jelinek in Washington contributed to this report.