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Published: Friday, 4/30/2010

Gulf oil spill starts oozing ashore; mess could eclipse Exxon Valdez

BLADE NEWS SERVICES

VENICE, La. - An oil spill that threatened to become worse than even the Exxon Valdez disaster spread out of control and started washing ashore along the Gulf Coast last night.

Fishermen rushed to scoop up shrimp and crews spread floating barriers around marshes.

The spill was bigger than imagined - five times more than first estimated - and closer.

Faint fingers of oily sheen were reaching the Mississippi River delta, lapping the Louisiana shoreline in long, thin lines.

"It is of grave concern," said David Kennedy of the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration. "I am frightened. This is a very, very big thing. And the efforts that are going to be required to do anything about it, especially if it continues on, are just mind-boggling."

The response to the spill intensified abruptly yesterday with the federal government intervening more aggressively.

Resources from the U.S. Navy were marshaled to supplement an operation that already consisted of more than 1,000 people and scores of vessels and aircraft.

Louisiana Gov. Bobby Jindal asked the federal government for permission to call up 6,000 National Guard forces to help.

Containment vessels have tried to place booms around some of the oil in the Gulf of Mexico. Remote-controlled submersibles have been unable to seal off the well that is leaking. Containment vessels have tried to place booms around some of the oil in the Gulf of Mexico. Remote-controlled submersibles have been unable to seal off the well that is leaking.
SEAN GARDNER / AP Enlarge

The oil slick could become the nation's worst environmental disaster in decades, threatening hundreds of species of fish, birds, and other wildlife along the Gulf Coast, one of the world's richest seafood grounds, teeming with shrimp, oysters, and other marine life. Thicker oil was in waters south and east of the Mississippi delta about five miles offshore.

Calling it "a spill of national significance" which could threaten the coast in several states, Homeland Security Secretary Janet Napolitano announced the creation of a second command post in Mobile, Ala., in addition to the one in Louisiana, to manage potential coastal impact in Alabama, Mississippi, and Florida.

Interior Secretary Ken Salazar ordered a review of the 30 offshore drilling rigs and 47 production platforms operating in the gulf and is sending teams to conduct on-site inspections.

The leak from the ocean floor proved to be far bigger than initially reported, contributing to a growing sense among many in Louisiana that the government had failed them again, just as it did during Hurricane Katrina.

Cade Thomas, a fishing guide in Venice, La., about 75 miles from New Orleans, worried that his livelihood will be destroyed. He said he did not know whether to blame the Coast Guard, the federal government, or oil company BP PLC.

"They lied to us. They came out and said it was leaking 1,000 barrels when I think they knew it was more. And they weren't proactive," he said. "As soon as it blew up, they should have started wrapping it with booms."

The Coast Guard worked with BP, which operated the oil rig that exploded and sank last week, killing 11 workers, to deploy floating booms, skimmers, and chemical dispersants, and set controlled fires to burn the oil off the water's surface.

BP yesterday requested more resources from the Defense Department, especially underwater equipment that might be better than what is commercially available. A BP executive said the corporation would "take help from anyone."

Crews operating submersible robots have failed to activate a shut-off device that would halt the flow of oil.

Government officials said the blown-out well 40 miles offshore is spewing five times as much oil into the water as originally estimated - about 5,000 barrels, or 200,000 gallons, a day.

At that rate, the spill could eclipse the worst oil spill in U.S. history - the 11 million gallons that leaked from the grounded tanker Exxon Valdez in Alaska's Prince William Sound in 1989 - in the three months it could take to drill a relief well and plug the gushing well 5,000 feet underwater on the sea floor.

The spill eventually could grow much larger than the Valdez because Gulf of Mexico wells tap deposits that hold many times more oil than a single tanker.

Doug Suttles, chief operating officer for BP Exploration and Production, had initially disputed the government's larger estimate. But he later acknowledged on NBC's Today show that the leak may be as bad as federal officials say. He said there was no way to measure the flow at the seabed, so estimates have to come from how much oil rises to the surface.

Mike Brewer, 40, who lost his oil spill response company in Hurricane Katrina nearly five years ago, said the area was accustomed to the occasional minor spill. But he feared the scale of the escaping oil was beyond the capacity of existing resources.

"You're pumping out a massive amount of oil. There is no way to stop it," he said.

An emergency shrimping season was opened to allow shrimpers to scoop up their catch before it is fouled by oil.

This murky water and the oysters in it have provided a livelihood for three generations of Frank and Mitch Jurisich's family in Empire, La.

Now, on the open water just beyond the marshes, they can smell the oil that threatens everything they know and love.

"Just smelling it, it puts more of a sense of urgency, a sense of fear," Frank Jurisich said.

The brothers hope to get all the oysters they can sell before the oil washes ashore. They filled more than 100 burlap sacks yesterday. "This might be our last day," Mitch Jurisich said.

Without the fishing industry, Frank Jurisich said the family "would be lost. This is who we are and what we do."

Mr. Jindal declared a state of emergency yesterday so officials could begin preparing for the oil's impact. He said at least 10 wildlife management areas and refuges are in the oil plume's path.



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