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Oil slick reaches Louisiana's barrier islands

An orange sheen washes onto beaches as BP starts lowering a dome to try to contain oil gushing from the seafloor.

May 07, 2010|By Bettina Boxall and Jill Leovy, Los Angeles Times
  • A containment device perched at the stern of a ship was to be lowered over the oil leak 5,000 feet below. Work was delayed Thursday night after worrisome gas fumes were detected, a BP spokesman said.
A containment device perched at the stern of a ship was to be lowered over… (Rick Loomis / Los Angeles…)

As an orange slick of oil washed onto sandy barrier islands prized as a historic wildlife refuge, crews on Thursday worked to lower a containment vessel over a leak 5,000 feet deep in the Gulf of Mexico, and federal officials extended a temporary freeze on new offshore drilling nationwide.

"We have now had reports of oil ashore," Coast Guard Petty Officer David Mosley said. Overflights found the sheen that marks the advancing edge of the massive slick hovering off the Louisiana coast, as well as heavier oil on both sides of the Chandeleur Islands, about 60 miles east of New Orleans.

Cleanup crews were dispatched to the crescent-shaped string of islands, which are part of the Breton National Wildlife Refuge created in 1904 by President Theodore Roosevelt.

Jaqui Michel, an oil spill cleanup expert with the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration, said "light-orange mooshy-looking stuff" was working its way toward island marshes and rookeries for thousands of pelicans, the state bird.

The oil had pushed up against marshes but had not yet penetrated them. Booms were being placed to protect plants from floating oil, Michel said, and vegetation will be flushed gently with water to drive residual oil away from the shore, where it can be skimmed.

The slick arrived a little more than two weeks after the Deepwater Horizon rig explosion, which left 11 workers missing and presumed dead and sent oil gushing into the gulf at a rate of at least 200,000 gallons a day.

BP teams started lowering a huge coffer dam containment device over the main leak, a delicate operation that is the company's best hope of capturing much of the oil pouring from a leaking pipe on the seabed, nearly a mile beneath the surface.

"Everyone wants this to work. It's never been done before at this depth. That's the scary part," said BP Chief Operating Officer Doug Suttles.

The work with the dome was stopped Thursday night after worrisome levels of gas fumes were detected, but BP spokesman Scott Dean expected the delay to be temporary. "They may have taken a pause because of air monitoring results that may have indicated hydrocarbon vapors, which can be explosive at high enough levels," Dean said.

The four-story metal box, which will be hooked to a pipe system leading to an oil processing ship, should be operating by early next week. But Suttles said he expected the project would encounter some start-up troubles.

Political fallout continued in the aftermath of the rig disaster, which occurred about 50 miles offshore.

After meeting in Houston with BP officials, U.S. Interior Secretary Ken Salazar announced that his department would issue no new offshore drilling permits until investigators determined the causes of the accident. That review is due to President Obama by May 28.

The decision is not a total moratorium — drilling will continue on existing platforms offshore — but it freezes new drilling in the gulf and the Arctic Ocean, where Shell is set to begin exploratory drilling this summer. Salazar could still approve the Arctic permit in time for that drilling to begin as scheduled.

The department also is putting a temporary hold on public hearings that would have been the next step in opening the Virginia coastline to offshore oil and gas drilling.

On Capitol Hill, Reps. Lois Capps (D-Santa Barbara) and Edward J. Markey (D-Mass.) proposed an independent commission with subpoena power to investigate the spill and recommend measures to prevent similar disasters. A bipartisan delegation of House members planned a flyover of the spill site Friday, along with meetings with officials overseeing the response.

Breton was the nation's second wildlife refuge, founded by a nature-loving president who wanted to save its rich bird life from slaughter by hunters seeking feathers for women's hats.

"The islands are very vibrant places," said Kelby Ouchley, a temporary manager at the Interior Department's wildlife refuge visitors center in Venice, La. He described the islands, mostly sand, mud and grass, as "places where thousands of birds are wheeling and whirling around you. You see pelicans toting big limbs to make nests and peregrine falcons flying over. It is rife with life."

Michel said workers must be careful not to clean the oil-hit areas too vigorously because that could do more harm than good. Any remaining oil will be left to biodegrade. Teams have placed double booms to protect pelican nesting areas on the lee side of the islands, but not on the east where the waves are too large.

The movement of the oil plume, which spread to the west Thursday, continued to frustrate predictions. "It's pretty amazing to have oil in the water for this period of time and so little shoreline oil," Michel said.

So far the only reports from wildlife officials about oil on marine animals have been "a gannet and several pelicans," said Jeff Dauzat of the Louisiana Department of Environmental Quality.

NOAA has started sampling fish and shellfish, both in the gulf and in stores, and has directed a research ship to collect samples of seafloor sediment and the water column. None of the fish tests are complete yet, but spokesman Brian Gorman said NOAA had no reason to believe that tainted seafood had entered the country's food chain.

Times staff writers P.J. Huffstutter in Los Angeles and Richard Simon and Jim Tankersley in Washington contributed to this report.

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