Oil slick drifts to Gulf shores Hawaii oil spill clean-up experts helping with Gulf Coast slick
By Richard Fausset and Jim Tankersley
McClatchy-Tribune News Service
VENICE, La. — A massive oil slick began lapping against the ragged coastline of southeastern Louisiana yesterday, threatening devastation of some of the nation's most fragile wetlands. President Obama ordered a moratorium on new drilling projects while the federal government considers new guidelines to prevent future spills.
With sharp southeasterly winds driving the crude oil toward shore, federal, state and private crews struggled to contain the slick, which is gushing from a broken well head nearly a mile below the surface of the Gulf of Mexico and about 130 miles southeast of New Orleans.
Federal involvement continued to expand, with the Justice Department joining the list of Cabinet offices dispatched to the scene, raising the possibility of a criminal investigation. Louisiana Gov. Bobby Jindal asked for federal authority to call up 6,000 National Guard troops to help with the cleanup.
The spill erupted April 22, when a Transocean Deepwater Horizon drilling rig, leased to the oil company BP, sank after an explosion and fire. Initial estimates that it was leaking 1,000 barrels of oil a day were upped to 5,000 barrels, a rate that could make the BP spill larger than the nation's worst previous oil spill, the 1989 wreck of the tanker Exxon Valdez in Alaska's Prince William Sound.
Eleven crew members from the rig remain missing and presumed dead.
Louisiana and federal officials criticized BP yesterday, calling the company's response "not adequate" to protect threatened coastal areas.
Obama administration officials, including Interior Secretary Ken Salazar and Homeland Security Secretary Janet Napolitano, urged BP to line up additional resources — including aid from other oil companies — after expressing disappointment that BP's attempts to stop the leak have failed.
Salazar said he pressed BP "to work harder and faster and smarter to get the job done" and added: "We cannot rest and we will not rest until BP seals the well head, and until they clean up every drop of oil."
The company insisted it was doing all it could.
"We welcome every new idea and every new resource," said Doug Suttles, BP's chief operating officer for exploration and production. He said the company was having a hard time because of the weather.
Some officials, including Jindal and Sen. David Vitter, R-La., called for the federal government to accelerate its efforts.
"These next few days are critical," Jindal said at an afternoon news conference attended by top Cabinet secretaries. "Our focus is to mitigate the damage on the coast."
LOCALS TURN OUT
Much of the cleanup effort was centered in the fishing town of Venice, about 50 miles from the sunken rig. A couple of miles from the docks, dozens of pickups convened in the gravel parking lot of a private environmental company. Scores of men in hardhats and baseball caps milled around preparing to play their part in an effort that has engaged 2,000 people, according to BP officials — double the number reported earlier this week.
They were private environmental consultants, paramedics and crews from the state wildlife and fisheries department.
At Cypress Cove Marina, more workers gathered, preparing to jump on ships to lay out more boom to protect the wetlands. But reports rolled in that big waves were overtopping some of the boom in place and washing oil into the wetlands.
More than 250,000 feet of boom had already been deployed, Suttles said.
Jindal asked BP to divvy out cleanup tasks to fishing crews whose livelihood is threatened to such an extent that the governor asked for the declaration of a "commercial fisheries failure," to clear the way for financial assistance.
The Louisiana Workforce Commission, meanwhile, announced in an e-mail that it wants to hire 500 workers as soon as possible for cleanup and protection operations.
At noon yesterday, hundreds of fishing workers crowded into the gym at Boothville-Venice Elementary School for a training class, arranged by BP, to transform them into haz-mat cleanup and wetlands-protection specialists.
They were Cajun and Italian, Vietnamese and Cambodian, in white shrimp boots and scuffed sneakers, with sun-baked faces and hard squinting eyes. They came from the local docks in Venice, and from other out-of-the-way shrimp and oyster communities across Cajun south Louisiana — Lafitte, Port Sulfur, Dulac. Some brought babies in their arms.
The mood was tense; their futures were at stake. "It's like takin' ya heart out of ya chest," said Jerry Parria, 43. "I did a little investigation into that Exxon Valdez. It ain't never got right over there."
An official from BP spoke, his refined British accent standing out among the casual Louisiana brogues.
"We're here for the long haul," he told them. "We're here to help. We're here to do whatever we can to make this as right as possible."
A few miles up the Mississippi from Venice, a Delaware nonprofit, Tri-State Bird Rescue & Research, had set up a recovery center for oil-slicked birds at Fort Jackson, site of an 1862 Civil War battle. As of last night, just one bird had been treated: a northern gannet, a relative of the albatross, with a 5- to 6-foot wingspan. The young bird was discovered a few days ago near the leak site.
The main part of the spill was expected to hit land later yesterday and through the weekend, when storms are expected. Officials in Mississippi and Alabama also braced for oil to hit their stretch of the Gulf Coast. The Coast Guard would not confirm media reports that oil already had washed up in the far reaches of Louisiana.
Poor weather hampered efforts to skim oil from the surface or ignite it. High waves limited the effectiveness of booms, because the water carrying the oil can wash over the barriers.
The Coast Guard, the first responder among federal agencies, has been joined by teams from the Defense Department, Interior Department, Environmental Protection Agency and other agencies. Criticism of the federal agencies as too slow to recognize the seriousness of the spill reflect the difficult balancing act faced by the Obama administration in a region still angry over the Bush administration's handling of Hurricane Katrina aftermath in 2005.
Officials said they have deployed 1,900 federal workers to protect coastal areas and wildlife, up from about 1,200 on Thursday.
Napolitano said the Defense Department is sending two C-130 aircraft to drop oil-dispersing chemicals on the spill. The EPA is bringing in two mobile labs to test air quality, and scientists to sample water quality.
Meanwhile, Obama ordered the Interior Department to report back in 30 days on the causes of the spill and what safeguards should be written into future drilling leases to prevent a repeat.
The spill also raised objections among congressional Democrats and environmentalists to the administration's proposal to expand drilling in the Gulf and off Alaska and the Atlantic coast in coming years.
Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid, D-Nev., said in a statement that the spill "will, undoubtedly, require us to re-examine how we extract our nation's offshore energy resources."
Several environmental groups urged Obama to reinstate a ban on opening new areas to drilling that President George W. Bush rescinded.
"The hidden costs of our oil dependency are no longer invisible," said Larry Schweiger, president of the National Wildlife Federation.