Disaster looms as oil slick closes on US coast

A giant oil slick threatened economic and environmental devastation as it closed in on Louisiana`s vulnerable coast, prompting the US government to declare a national disaster.

Updated: Apr 30, 2010, 09:08 AM IST

Venice: A giant oil slick threatened economic and environmental devastation as it closed in on Louisiana`s vulnerable coast, prompting the US government to declare a national disaster.

Strengthening southeasterly winds have started to blow the 600-square-mile (1,550-square-kilometer) slick directly onto marshland, teeming with wildlife that amounts to 40 percent of America`s ecologically fragile wetlands.

"While BP (British Petroleum) is ultimately responsible for funding the cost of response and cleanup operations, my administration will continue to use every single available resource at our disposal, including potentially the Department of Defense, to address the incident," President Barack Obama said.

The event was deemed a disaster of "national significance," to better coordinate resources, as Louisiana governor Bobby Jindal meanwhile declared a state of emergency and called for urgent help to prevent vital spawning grounds and fishing communities from pollution on a massive scale.

The US government`s National Oceanographic and Atmospheric Administration (NOAA) predicted that heavier winds would make the first "shoreline impacts... increasingly likely later in the day and into Friday."

Despite frantic efforts to stave off an environmental catastrophe, many of those dependent on the region`s vital fisheries and nature reserves had already given up hope due to strong onshore squalls forecast for several days to come.

"It is a question of when, not if, the oil is going to come on shore," Doug Helton, NOAA`s incident operations coordinator, told a news agency.

Brent Roy, who charters fishing boats off the coast, said the rough seas expected Thursday night through Saturday would make it nigh on impossible that rescue teams would be able to contain the spill off shore.

"As it gets into the wildlife management area it is going to kill us. This wind is going to push it right on us," he told a news agency, after returning to the small coastal hub of Venice from the Pass a Loutre nature reserve.

"It`s the worst case scenario for shrimpers, oyster harvesters, crabbers -- all the commercial fisherman," Roy said. "You could definitely smell it in the air. There were a lot of helicopters in the air and workboats with booms."

The Louisiana Department of Health and Hospitals said coastal inhabitants "may be detecting an odor possibly resulting from the oil spill," adding that they were ready to "take any other action deemed appropriate to protect public health and safety."

Two Louisiana shrimpers have filed a lawsuit accusing the operators of the rig behind a Gulf of Mexico oil spill of negligence, seeking millions of dollars in damages.

The lawsuit, filed in Louisiana federal court late Wednesday, is the second of what was expected to be a flood of litigation from the disaster.

It alleges that the fire, explosion and resulting oil spill at the rig in the Gulf of Mexico were "caused by the joint negligence and fault" of British energy giant BP and other defendants.

The shrimpers are seeking class-action status on behalf of "all Louisiana residents who live or work in, or derive income from," the coastal zone, and who have sustained losses as a result of the oil spill.

A first suit was filed earlier Wednesday in Florida on behalf of commercial fishermen operating in the Gulf of Mexico, lawyers said.

Jindal listed at least 10 wildlife refuges in Louisiana and Mississippi in the direct path of the oil slick that are likely to be impacted, warning that billions of dollars in coastal restoration projects could be wasted.

Oil was gushing unabated from near the Deepwater Horizon platform, which sank April 22, two days after a huge explosion that killed 11 workers.

Some 5,000 barrels, or 200,000 gallons, of oil a day were now said to be streaming from the riser pipe that linked the sunken rig to the wellhead.

Crews conducted a controlled "trial" burn Wednesday of one of the thickest parts of the slick, but such operations were suspended indefinitely as the heavier winds blew in.

Officials revealed late Wednesday that the slick was estimated to be growing five times faster than previously thought following the discovery of a new, third leak.

The accident has not disrupted offshore energy operations in the Gulf, which account for 30 percent of all US oil production and 11 percent of domestic gas production.

BP, which leased the semi-submersible rig from Houston-based contractor Transocean, has been operating 10 robotic submarines to try and cap the ruptured well on the seabed some 5,000 feet (1,500 meters) below the surface.

Crews have failed so far to fully activate a giant 450-tonne valve system, called a blowout preventer, that should have shut off the oil as soon as the disaster happened.

As a back-up, engineers were constructing a giant dome that could be placed over the leaks to trap the oil, allowing it to be pumped up to container ships on the surface.

Almost 100,000 gallons of dispersant have been dropped in the past week onto the slick in relentless aerial sorties to try and speed up the evaporation process.

BP said it also plans to try a new technique to send chemical dispersants underwater in tubes down to the actual leaks to reduce the amount of oil developing on the surface.

In addition to six fixed-wing aircraft and 11 helicopters, a flotilla of 76 skimmers, tugs, and barges have been deployed in an unprecedented collaborative effort between the oil industry and the US government.

But until the well is capped or the leaks plugged, the toxic crude will continue to spew into the Gulf of Mexico.

If the latest figures are accurate, nearly 1.5 million gallons have already done so.

By comparison, some 11 million gallons of crude spilled from the Exxon Valdez into Prince William Sound, Alaska in 1989.

Bureau Report