VENICE, La. – With no remedy in sight, President Barack Obama on Sunday warned of a “massive and potentially unprecedented environmental disaster” as a badly damaged oil well in the Gulf of Mexico spewed a widening and deadly slick toward delicate wetlands and wildlife and federal officials shut down fishing from the Mississippi River to the Florida Panhandle. He said it could take many days to stop.
Obama flew to southern Louisiana to inspect forces arrayed against the oil gusher as Cabinet members described the situation as grave and insisted the administration was doing everything it could. Then he took a 15-mile helicopter ride over marshlands and estuaries to a coastal area, but high winds prevented the craft from going out to the 30-mile oil slick caused by as much as 210,000 gallons of crude gushing into the Gulf each day.
The spill threatened not only the environment but also the region’s abundant fishing industry. As of now, it appeared little could be done in the short term to stem the oil flow, which was also drifting toward the beaches of neighboring Mississippi and farther east along the Florida Panhandle. Obama said the slick was 9 miles off the coast of southeastern Louisiana.
More than 6,800 square miles of federal fishing areas, from the mouth of the Mississippi to Florida’s Pensacola Bay, were closed for at least 10 days on Sunday by the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration. NOAA Administrator Jane Lubchenco said government scientists are taking samples from the waters near the spill to determine whether there is any danger.
Fishermen still were out working, however: They have been dropping miles of inflatable, oil-capturing boom around the region’s fragile wetlands and prime fishing areas. Bad weather, however, was thwarting much of the work; Alabama Gov. Bob Riley said 80 percent of the booms laid down off his state over the previous three days had broken down. He said boom along other coasts is breaking down also.
An investigation is under way into the cause of the April 20 well explosion and, depending on its outcome, questions may be raised about whether federal regulation of offshore rigs operating in extremely deep waters is sufficient and whether the government is requiring the best available technology to shut off such wells in event of a blowout.
The president vowed that his administration, while doing all it could to mitigate the disaster, would require well owner BP America to bear all costs. “Your government will do whatever it takes for as long as it takes to stop this crisis,” he said.
“BP is responsible for this leak. BP will be paying the bill,” Obama said.
BP Chairman Lamar McKay, speaking on ABC’s “The 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 an accident – had malfunctioned.
Satellite images indicate the rust-hued slick tripled in size in just two days, suggesting the oil could be pouring out faster than before.
Even if the well is shut off in a week, fishermen and wildlife officials wonder how long it will take for the gulf to recover. Some compare it to the hurricane Louisiana is still recovering from after nearly five years.
“It’s like a slow version of Katrina,” Venice charter boat captain Bob Kenney said. “My kids will be talking about the effect of this when they’re my age.”