Oil spill’s ugly reality sets in

This seven-mile squiggle of homey rentals and streets with names like Redfish and Speckled Trout had wrung hope for weeks from a single belief: Oil would land somewhere else.

But on Friday, oil the color and consistency of brownie batter began tarnishing the shore of Grand Isle, a tourist town of 1,500 that draws its livelihood from thousands of weekend visitors.

The dark ooze — the first direct hit from the massive gulf oil spill on a populated, popular shoreline — deepened anger and anxiety on the Louisiana coast as the slick swirled offshore with no containment in sight.

Suddenly, in Grand Isle, the oil disaster shifted from “out there” to “here.” No one could pretend anymore. “This could kill Grand Isle for years to come,” fretted Mayor Pro Tem Jay Lafont.

With more black waves churning offshore, the town was forced to close its beach. So far, roughly 40 miles of coastal Louisiana has been contaminated. But a change in wind or tides could hasten more damage.

In Plaquemines Parish, the mood in the last couple of days has been “very discouraging, extremely discouraging,” said Charles Collins, 68, a veteran crew boat captain who works out of Venice, La., near the mouth of the Mississippi River.

After weeks of waiting and watching the oil offshore, the slick invaded patches of marshlands this week. “Once it gets in the marsh, it’s impossible to get out,” Collins said. “All your shrimp are born in the marsh. All your plankton. The marsh is like the beginning of life in the sea. And it’s in the marshes. Bad.”

Locals have also begun to worry about hurricane season, which begins June 1. How far could a big storm surge push the oil inland? What booms could stop that kind of force? “I don’t think in the United States of America people understand the magnitude of what this could do,” Collins said.

BP Chief Operating Officer Doug Suttles said that during a Friday flight with Alabama Gov. Bob Riley, he didn’t see any oil near the Alabama, Mississippi and Florida coastlines. Calm weather has allowed crews to continue skimming and burning operations in recent days. BP is staging equipment to attempt a “top kill” procedure early next week to plug the blown-out well with heavy drilling mud.

But the oil hits this week have increased public outcry. Officials in Louisiana lambasted BP for failing to deploy enough orange and yellow booms before the oil sloshed ashore.

“We knew it was a matter of time,” said Lafont, a former Exxon employee. “We had nothing but time, and BP did nothing but waste it.”

At a Friday news briefing, U.S. Coast Guard Rear Adm. Mary Landry said, “We were a little disappointed in the work in Terrebonne Parish.... We definitely had discussions with both BP and Coast Guard.” But she said cleanup work elsewhere seemed to be going well.

Meanwhile, 48 miles offshore and nearly a mile below the gulf surface, BP continued to capture some of the oil billowing from a broken pipe, drawing it into a tube system that is carrying it to a processing ship.

But disagreement simmered over just how much oil is pouring from the leak, which is spouting from a mangled riser pipe on the seafloor about 600 feet from the damaged wellhead.

BP on Thursday said the insertion tube was collecting as many as 5,000 barrels of oil and 15 million cubic feet of gas a day, even as oil continued to spill into gulf waters. That undercut official estimates of the leak, which have pegged it at 5,000 barrels a day.

On Friday Suttles said the flow into the insertion tube varied and in the last 24 hours, had fallen to 2,200 barrels. On average, the system has drawn about 2,000 barrels a day since it was put in place Sunday, he added.

Independent scientists analyzing video of the leak have said the flow rate is more like 70,000 barrels a day. But Suttles stood by the 5,000-barrel-a day figure. “At the moment that’s our best estimate.” Though he conceded that “there’s a huge amount of uncertainty around that, and it could have a fairly wide range.”

In another matter, Suttles said his company had been unable to identify alternatives to the oil dispersants that the Environmental Protection Agency had ordered BP to stop using. “There were not any other dispersants that we could yet identify that were available that were less toxic,” Suttles said.

He added that BP was continuing to look for other dispersants in the wake of EPA’s directive that it apply less toxic kinds to break up the spill.

In Washington, President Obama on Friday appointed a bipartisan panel to figure out the root causes of the disaster. Bob Graham, a former Florida governor and Democratic senator, and former EPA Administrator William K. Reilly are co-chairmen of the commission, charged with studying how better regulation could stop accidents like the Deepwater Horizon oil spill.

Obama is asking the seven-member commission to issue a report within six months.

At Grand Isle’s town hall, located in an old Coast Guard station, the pace was frenzied all week. Terry Vegas, the assistant treasurer, had taken one call laced with expletives, another from an out-of-towner who wanted to launch an “oil bus tour,” and a third from a woman who demanded, “What are you going to do about it?”

“The anger has been escalating,” Vegas said. “And now there’s a visual. There’s a visual in our backyard.”

Vegas, 51, already felt whipsawed. Her husband, Percy, is a shrimper. “Being married to a fisherman for 30 years, I can say all fishermen are eternal optimists — wait until the next moon, wait until the next season,” she said.

But a few days into the spill she asked her husband whether he understood the magnitude of the slick and how it could harm the waters for years. His eyes welled with tears. She has tried to be his anchor, but on Friday, that was hard.

She stared at the yellow Post-It on which she scribbled one caller’s idea for saving Grand Isle: Something called an “air ric robot.”

“This place is shot now,” she said, her voice quavering.

Times staff writers Bettina Boxall in Los Angeles and Richard Simon in Washington and Christi Parsons of the Washington bureau contributed to this report.