Crews scramble to keep oil from shore
Venice - Crews were scrambling on Thursday to contain a massive oil spill that was gushing five times faster than originally thought and drifting toward the mouth of the largest US river and some of the country's most fertile seafood grounds.
About 5 000 barrels of oil a day are coming up from the seabed after a BP PLC operated rig, the Deepwater Horizon, exploded and sank last week about 65km offshore, leaving 11 workers missing and presumed dead.
Time may be running out: Oil had crept to within 19km of the coast, and it could reach shore as soon as Friday.
It was moving steadily toward the mouth of the Mississippi River, which runs up the middle of the country, and threatened the wetland areas east of the river that are home to hundreds of species of wildlife and near some rich oyster grounds.
If the well cannot be closed, almost 100 000 barrels of oil, or 15.9 million litres, could spill into the Gulf before crews can drill a relief well to alleviate the pressure. By comparison, the Exxon Valdez, the worst oil spill in US history, leaked 41.6 million litres into Alaska's Prince William Sound in 1989.
The Coast Guard is urging BP to formally request more resources from the defence department. But the defence department has received no request for help, nor is it doing any detailed planning for any mission on the oil spill, said John Kirby, a spokesperson for Joint Chiefs of Staff Admiral Mike Mullen.
The navy is sending 20 000m of inflatable boom and seven skimming systems, and using its bases in the region as staging areas for the operation.
Coast Guard Rear Admiral Sally Brice-O'Hara said at the White House that the federal government's priority was to support BP in employing booms, skimmers, chemical dispersants and controlled burns to fight the oil surge.
President Barack Obama has dispatched Homeland Security Secretary Janet Napolitano, Interior Secretary Ken Salazar and Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) administrator Lisa Jackson to help with the spill. The president said his administration will use "every single available resource at our disposal" to respond to the spill.
Obama has directed officials to aggressively confront the spill, but the cost of the cleanup will fall on BP, spokesperson Nick Shapiro said.
An executive for BP PLC said earlier in the day on NBC television that the company would welcome help from the US military.
"We'll take help from anyone," said Doug Suttles, chief operating officer for BP Exploration and Production.
Suttles had initially disputed the government's estimate, and that the company was unable to handle the operation to contain it. But early on Thursday, he acknowledged on NBC that the leak may be as bad as the government says.
State of emergency
The BP executive said there was no way to measure the flow at the seabed and estimates have to come from how much oil makes it to the surface. Crews were unable to activate a shut-off device that would halt the flow of oil on the sea bottom 1 500m below.
Louisiana Governor Bobby Jindal on Thursday declared a state of emergency, which allows the state to free up resources to begin preparing for the oil to reach the shore.
As the oil drifted closer to shore, Louisiana opened a special shrimp season along parts of the coast so shrimpers can harvest the profitable white shrimp before the spill has an effect.
Plaquemines Parish oysterman Mitch Jurasich said by telephone from his boat that he and other crews are working around the clock to harvest as many oysters as possible.
"But we're fighting a losing effort," Jurasich said. "We've got an extreme amount of product in the water."
As dawn broke on Thursday in the oil industry hub of Venice, about 120km from New Orleans and not far from the mouth of the Mississippi River, crews loaded an orange oil boom aboard a supply boat at Bud's Boat Launch. There, local officials expressed frustration with the pace of the government's response and the communication they were getting from the Coast Guard and BP officials.
"We're not doing everything we can do," said Billy Nungesser, president of Plaquemines Parish, which straddles the Mississippi River at the tip of Louisiana.
"Give us the worst-case scenario. How far inland is this supposed to go?" Nungesser said.
Fishermen asked to help
A fleet of boats working under an oil industry consortium has been using booms to corral and then skim oil from the surface.
BP has asked local fishermen for help. A memo from the office of Senator David Vitter, who represents Louisiana, said BP was seeking to contract shrimp boats, oyster boats and other vessels for hire to help with deploying containment boom in the Gulf.
A federal class-action lawsuit was filed late on Wednesday over the oil spill on behalf of two commercial shrimpers from Louisiana.
The suit seeks at least $5m in compensatory damages plus an unspecified amount of punitive damages against Transocean, BP, Halliburton Energy Services Inc and Cameron International Corp. The rig was owned by Transocean and operated by BP.
The oil spill comes as the Obama administration is looking to expand offshore drilling along the US coastline. White House press secretary Robert Gibbs said on Thursday that President Barack Obama remains committed to a process that could open drilling in areas currently off limits.