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Uncertainty grows with oil slick's size

The president visits Louisiana and vows to protect natural resources and compensate those affected. Weather hinders work crews and forecasts about landfall.

May 03, 2010|By Ashley Powers and Jim Tankersly, Los Angeles Times
  • Wildlife specialists take water samples in the Pass-a-Loutre Wildlife Management Area. There were no signs of oil on this beach, but there were reports of dead birds and turtles elsewhere.
Wildlife specialists take water samples in the Pass-a-Loutre Wildlife… (Carolyn Cole, Los Angeles…)

Reporting from Venice, La., and Washington — With the massive oil slick in the Gulf of Mexico tripling in size in 48 hours, President Obama visited New Orleans on Sunday and promised to "do everything in our power" to mitigate a looming environmental disaster.

Storms briefly grounded Coast Guard planes, but reports of oil hitting land began flowing in, along with confirmed sightings of dead sea turtles, crabs and birds washing ashore in Pass Christian, Miss.

Capricious winds and waves in remote areas confounded efforts to establish exactly when the oil might hit, and Coast Guard officials still had no confirmation late Sunday of landfall.

The coast from Louisiana to Florida braced for the gooey mess to hit barrier islands of the Gulf Islands National Seashore and the sandy beaches and casino enclaves crucial to the region's tourism industry.

The National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration announced a 10-day restriction on commercial and recreational fishing from the mouth of the Mississippi River to Florida's Pensacola Bay. In Alabama, National Guard troops arrived on Dauphin Island to build a berm of sand containers.

BP, the London-based oil company financially responsible for the deep-sea well rupture 50 miles off the coast of Louisiana, was put on the defensive as criticism mounted that too little was done too late to stop the slick.

BP Chairman Lamar McKay, speaking on ABC's "This Week," called the accident unforeseeable. He said BP engineers continued to believe that a broken "blowout preventer"— a valve that ensures the well is shut tight in case of an accident — had malfunctioned.

The break has allowed a fountain of oil — officially estimated at 5,000 barrels a day — to gush unchecked from the ocean floor, nearly a mile deep, out of reach of divers and all but the most specialized equipment. McKay compared the company's efforts to shut the ruptured well to "doing open- heart surgery at 5,000 feet in the dark, with robot-controlled submarines."

But there were signs that patience with BP's efforts was growing strained. A day earlier, Louisiana Gov. Bobby Jindal questioned whether BP had sufficient resources to respond to the crisis and declared that Louisiana officials were moving ahead with their own contingency plans.

"We are past the point of waiting," the statement said.

Obama on Sunday used his most forceful language yet, pledging the full resources of the federal government for as long as it took to fight the massive oil leak that threatened the environment and economy of the Gulf of Mexico region.

"We're going to do everything in our power to protect our natural resources to compensate those who have been harmed," Obama said, "to rebuild what has been damaged and help this region persevere like it has done so many times before."

Obama's visit coincided with other White House efforts to blunt questions about the federal response. Homeland Security Secretary Janet Napolitano and Interior Secretary Ken Salazar were dispatched to Sunday television talk shows, promising an aggressive response to the spill.

Gulf Coast fishing accounts for 75% of U.S. shrimp production and 20% of U.S. seafood stocks. Obama called the spill a threat to "the heartbeat of the region's economic life."

An April 20 explosion and fire later sank the Deepwater Horizon drilling rig, owned by Transocean Ltd. under contract to BP, and left 11 workers missing and presumed dead. Since then, engineers have been working around the clock trying to figure out how to stop what for all practical purposes may be a limitless undersea volcano of oil belching into the deep waters of the gulf.

Pilots operating robotic subs from a nearby ship have failed to fix the broken blowout preventer. A simultaneous effort to drill under the sea floor into the oil well shaft to try to plug it with cement could take three months.

BP offered a glimpse of hope Sunday, suggesting that within six to eight days it could lower huge steel boxes constructed to contain the churning column of oil.

Meanwhile, storms and seas of 7 to 10 feet kept some boats in port and hampered surface efforts as a storm system that had passed through the Los Angeles area several days ago wreaked havoc on the Southeast.

The result was swiftly changing winds, warm bursts of rain and rough water. The unpredictable winds, combined with a dearth of reports from the air, were making it difficult for officials to predict the slick's growth and movement.

"There's not a whole lot to do in this weather," said David Jones, 53, of Mobile, Ala., a supervisor at Oil Recovery Co., which is helping with the spill cleanup.

"When [the oil's] coming to you and you got it boomed off, you can contain it. The wind is so rough out there, it's blowing water out of the boom," he said. Gusts have also made it harder to fly over the spill and determine its size and shape, he said.

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