Oil from rig explosion hits Louisiana coast

Los Angeles Times and Tribune Washington Bureau

A massive oil slick began lapping against the ragged coastline of southeastern Louisiana on Friday, threatening devastation to some of the nation’s most fragile wetlands and prompting President Obama to order a moratorium on new drilling projects while the federal government considers new guidelines to prevent future spills.

With sharp southeasterly winds driving the crude oil toward shore, federal, state and private crews struggled to contain the slick, which is gushing from a broken well head nearly a mile below the surface of the Gulf of Mexico about 130 miles southeast of New Orleans. Federal involvement continued to expand, with the Justice Department joining the list of Cabinet offices dispatched to the scene. Louisiana Gov. Bobby Jindal asked for federal authority to call up 6,000 National Guard troops to help with the cleanup.

The spill erupted April 22, when a Transocean Deepwater Horizon drilling rig, leased to the oil company BP, sank after an explosion and fire. Initial estimates that it was leaking 1,000 barrels of oil a day were upped to 5,000 barrels, a rate that could make the BP spill larger than the nation’s worst previous oil spill, the 1989 wreck of the tanker Exxon Valdez in Alaska’s Prince William Sound.

Eleven crew members from the rig remain missing and are presumed dead.

Louisiana and federal officials criticized BP on Friday, calling the company’s response “not adequate” to protect threatened coastal areas.

Obama administration officials, including Interior Secretary Ken Salazar and Homeland Security Secretary Janet Napolitano, urged BP to line up additional resources — including aid from other oil companies — after expressing disappointment that BP’s attempts to stop the leak have failed.

Salazar said he had pressed BP “to work harder and faster and smarter to get the job done” and added: “We cannot rest and we will not rest until BP seals the well head, and until they clean up every drop of oil.”

The company said it was doing all it could.

“We welcome every new idea and every new resource,” said Doug Suttles, BP’s chief operating officer for exploration and production.. He said the company was having a hard time because of the weather.

Some officials, including Jindal and Sen. David Vitter (R-La.), called for the federal government to accelerate its efforts.

“These next few days are critical,” Jindal said at an afternoon news conference, attended by top Cabinet secretaries. “Our focus is to mitigate the damage on the coast.”

Much of the cleanup effort was centered in the fishing town of Venice, La., about 50 miles from the sunken rig. A couple of miles from the docks, dozens of pickup trucks convened in the gravel parking lot of a private environmental company. Scores of men in hard hats and baseball caps milled around preparing to play their part in a remediation effort that has engaged 2,000 people, according to BP officials — double the number reported earlier this week.

They were private environmental consultants, paramedics and crews from the state wildlife and fisheries department.

At Cypress Cove Marina, more workers gathered, preparing to jump on ships to lay out more boom to protect the wetlands. But reports rolled in that big waves were overtopping some of the boom in place and washing oil into the wetlands.

More than 250,000 feet of boom had already been deployed, Suttles said.

Jindal asked BP to divvy out cleanup tasks to fishermen, whose livelihood is threatened to such an extent that the governor asked for the declaration of a “commercial fisheries failure” to clear the way for financial assistance.

The Louisiana Workforce Commission, meanwhile, announced in an e-mail that it sought to hire 500 workers as soon as possible for cleanup and protection operations.

At noon Friday, hundreds of fishermen crowded into the gymnasium at Boothville-Venice Elementary School for a training class, arranged by BP, to transform them into hazmat cleanup and wetlands-protection experts.

They were Cajun and Italian, Vietnamese and Cambodian, in white shrimp boots and scuffed sneakers, with sun-baked faces and hard eyes. They came from the local docks in Venice, and from other out-of-the-way shrimp and oyster communities across Cajun south Louisiana — Lafitte, Port Sulfur, Dulac. Some brought babies in their arms.

The mood was tense; those assembled knew that their futures were at stake. “It’s like takin’ ya heart out of ya chest,” said Jerry Parria, 43. “I did a little investigation into that Exxon Valdez. It ain’t never got right over there.”

An official from BP spoke, his refined British accent standing out among the casual Louisiana brogues.

“We’re here for the long haul,” he told them. “We’re here to help. We’re here to do whatever we can to make this as right as possible.”

A few miles up the Mississippi River from Venice, a Delaware nonprofit, the Tri-State Bird Rescue & Research Inc., had set up a recovery center for oil-slicked birds at Fort Jackson, the site of an 1862 Civil War battle. As of Friday evening, just one bird had been treated: a northern gannet, a relative of the albatross, with a 5- to 6-foot wingspan. The bird had been discovered a few days ago near the leak site, said Erica A. Miller, a wildlife surgeon for the group.

The main part of the spill was expected to hit land later Friday and through the weekend, when storms are predicted. Officials in Mississippi and Alabama also braced for oil to hit their stretch of the Gulf Coast. The U.S. Coast Guard would not confirm media reports that oil already had washed up on the far reaches of Louisiana.

Poor weather hampered efforts to skim oil from the surface or ignite it. High waves limited the effectiveness of booms, because the water carrying the oil can wash over the barriers.

The Coast Guard, the first responder among federal agencies, has been joined by teams from the Defense Department, Interior Department, the Environmental Protection Agency and others.

Criticism of the federal agencies as too slow to recognize the seriousness of the spill reflects the difficult balancing act faced by the Obama administration as it increasingly takes ownership of disaster response in a region still angry over the Bush administration’s reaction to Hurricane Katrina in 2005.

Officials said they have deployed 1,900 federal workers to protect coastal areas and wildlife, up from about 1,200 on Thursday.

Homeland Security’s Napolitano said the Defense Department is sending two C-130 aircraft to drop oil-dispersing chemicals on the spill. The EPA is bringing in two mobile labs to test air quality, and scientists to sample water quality.

Meanwhile, Obama ordered the Interior Department to report back in 30 days on the causes of the spill and what safeguards should be written into future drilling leases to prevent a repeat.

Administration officials pledged Friday that no new drilling would occur until that investigation is completed.

But that pledge has little practical impact, at least for several months: The Interior Department will continue to process drilling permit applications for areas it already has leased, and its next offshore lease sale is not expected until August.

The spill also raised objections among congressional Democrats and environmentalists to the administration’s proposal to expand drilling in the gulf and off Alaska and the Atlantic Coast in coming years.

Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid (D-Nev.) said in a statement that the spill “will, undoubtedly, require us to reexamine how we extract our nation’s offshore energy resources.”

Several environmental groups urged Obama to reinstate a ban on opening new areas to drilling that President George W. Bush rescinded.

“The hidden costs of our oil dependency are no longer invisible,” said Larry Schweiger, president of the National Wildlife Federation.

Speaking in the Rose Garden, Obama said: “I continue to believe that domestic oil production is an important part of our overall strategy for energy security, but I’ve always said it must be done responsibly, for the safety of our workers and our environment.”

Speaking to reporters later in the day, White House Press Secretary Robert Gibbs said: “I wouldn’t sit here and tell you nothing is going to change about the president’s plans.”