VENICE, La. – An oil spill that threatened to eclipse even the Exxon Valdez disaster spread out of control with a faint sheen washing ashore along the Gulf Coast on Thursday night as 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,” David Kennedy of the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration, told the Associated Press. “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 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.
The leak from the ocean floor proved to be far bigger than initially reported. President Barack Obama dispatched Cabinet officials to deal with the crisis.
The Coast Guard worked with BP, which operated the oil rig that exploded and sank last week, to deploy floating booms, skimmers and chemical dispersants, and set controlled fires to burn the oil off the water’s surface.
The company has 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.”
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.
Ultimately, the spill could grow much larger than the Valdez because Gulf of Mexico wells tap deposits that hold many times more oil than a tanker.
Louisiana Gov. Bobby Jindal declared a state of emergency Thursday so officials could begin preparing for the oil’s impact. He said at least 10 wildlife management areas and refuges in his state and neighboring Mississippi are in the oil plume’s path. He also asked the federal government if he could call up 6,000 National Guard troops to help.
Tension was growing in towns like Port Sulphur and Empire along Louisiana Highway 23, which runs south of New Orleans along the Mississippi River into prime oyster and shrimping waters.
Companies like Chevron and ConocoPhillips have facilities nearby, and some residents are hesitant to criticize BP or the federal government, knowing the oil industry is as much a staple here as fishing.
“I don’t think there’s a lot of blame going around here. People are just concerned about their livelihoods,” said Sullivan Vullo, who owns La Casa Cafe in Port Sulphur.
In Buras, La., where Hurricane Katrina made landfall in 2005, the owner of the Black Velvet Oyster Bar & Grill couldn’t keep his eyes off the television. News and weather shows were making projections that oil would soon inundate the coastal wetlands where his family has worked since the 1860s.
It was as though a hurricane was approaching, maybe worse.
“A hurricane is like closing your bank account for a few days, but this here has the capacity to destroy our bank accounts,” said Byron Marinovitch.
“We’re really disgusted,” he added. “We don’t believe anything coming out of BP’s mouth.”
A fleet of boats working under an oil industry consortium has been using booms to corral and then skim oil from the surface.
BP conducted a test burn on Wednesday, but abandoned a plan to set fire to more oil after weather conditions deteriorated. The attempt to burn some of the oil came after crews operating submersible robots failed to activate a shut-off device that would halt the flow.
Obama said the White House would use “every single available resource” to respond.
Obama has directed officials to aggressively confront the spill, but the cost of the cleanup will fall on BP, according to the White House.
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