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Frantic drive to spare Gulf Coast from oil spill

Fears of an ecological crisis grow as crews tackle a leak that threatens to rival that of the Exxon Valdez.

April 29, 2010|By Richard Fausset and Mitchell Landsberg | Los Angeles Times Staff Writers

Reporting from Louisiana and Los Angleles — A flotilla of vessels attacked a massive oil spill in the Gulf of Mexico on Thursday with skimmers, booms and chemicals, hoping to lessen the ecological impact when the slick makes landfall in Louisiana.

Louisiana Gov. Bobby Jindal declared a state of emergency after it became apparent that the scope of the disaster was far greater than it had appeared earlier, threatening the natural resources and economy of his state. President Obama pledged to deploy "every single available resource at our disposal, including potentially the Department of Defense."

Oil spill: An article in Friday's Section A about efforts to fight the oil spill in the Gulf of Mexico misspelled the last name of U.S. Coast Guard Petty Officer Matthew Schofield as Scofield. —

"This is a spill of national significance," Homeland Security Secretary Janet Napolitano told reporters at a White House briefing. The designation means that assets from across the country can be used to fight the spill, which threatens a fragile Mississippi Delta ecosystem already damaged by Hurricane Katrina.

The crisis began last week when the oil rig Deepwater Horizon sank in deep gulf waters, days after it exploded and caught fire. Of its crew of 126, 11 are missing and presumed dead. The rig was owned by Transocean Ltd. and operated by BP, which is responsible for the cleanup.

Oil has been leaking at a rate of 5,000 barrels a day. Because it could take 90 days to drill a relief well to stem the flow, the spill could reach 18.9 million gallons, more than leaked from Exxon Valdez in Alaska's Prince William Sound, the worst spill in U.S. history.

The gulf spill began to reach the Mississippi Delta by sunset Thursday, the Associated Press reported, and booms intended to protect the shore were being over topped by 5-foot waves.

Louisiana's wetlands and some of the nation's richest fishing grounds are threatened.

"Everybody is really worried about potential ecological disasters," Nancy Rabalais, executive director of the Louisiana Universities Marine Consortium, said from her office in Cocodrie, La., on Terrebonne Bay. "The oil is going to move somewhere. It's not as likely to move offshore."

The Coast Guard was coordinating vessels including 76 boats and 17 aircraft. The boats include skimmers, tug boats and robotic submarines, which are investigating the underwater damage, said Petty Officer Matthew Schofield. About 174,000 feet of booms have been laid and an additional 243,000 feet are available. The Coast Guard has deployed 1,178 crewmembers. California experts are also en route.

"Our end goal remains permanently securing the well," said U.S. Coast Guard Rear Adm. Mary Landry, the federal on-scene coordinator.

Landry said emergency crews were hoping to begin using chemicals to disperse the oil underwater — something that has never been done at such depth, about 5,000 feet. Landry called the technique "novel" and said crews were waiting for final approval to use it.

Officials said they were prepared to sink a relief well and to consider a second relief well to stem intense pressure that was sending oil spewing from underwater pipes.

"Nobody, absolutely nobody, wants to get this oil flow stopped more than I do," said Doug Suttles, chief operating officer for BP Exploration and Production. He said he had contacted other industry experts for their ideas to contain the spill.

The Department of Defense was evaluating whether it could contribute to the effort, spokesman Geoff Morrell said. The Coast Guard is part of the Department of Homeland Security.

Coast Guard officials said stormy conditions expected late Thursday could cause crews to suspend operations. The National Weather Service forecast rain and thunderstorms, with rough seas expected.

The oil spill could not have come at a worse time for the Gulf Coast's sea life, wildlife and bird species. Late spring is the peak time for neo-tropical songbirds moving from the Yucatan Peninsula to make landfall in Louisiana. As many as 25million birds a day arrive during this northern migration. More than 70% of the country's waterfowl frequent the gulf's waters, including the brown pelican, which is in its nesting season.

Federally protected marine mammals — whales, dolphins and sea turtles — are among the species at risk. Biologists fear turtles that swim to shore to lay eggs in the approaching nesting season could become coated with oil.

The 400 miles of shoreline near the spill area include a national park and more than 20 national wildlife refuges.

"It's a very complicated system that is sensitive to change in any piece of it," said Karen Westphal, a coastal wetlands expert with the Louisiana Audubon Society. "Our marshes are not a wall. This spill is not going to stay on that outer edge. It's a sieve."

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