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Gulf oil spill: Choppy seas frustrate effort to contain oil spill

April 30, 2010 |  3:57 pm
Choppyseas High winds and choppy seas frustrated efforts to hold back the oil spill seeping into Louisiana's rich fishing grounds and nesting areas Friday, and the government desperately cast about for new ideas for dealing with the nation's biggest environmental crisis in decades.

President Barack Obama, meanwhile, halted any new offshore drilling projects unless rigs have new safeguards to prevent a repeat of the disaster that was set in motion when an offshore platform exploded and sank 50 miles out in the Gulf of Mexico.

As the mile-deep BP well continued to spew an estimated 200,000 gallons of crude a day, a lawsuit claimed that workers for oil services contractor Halliburton Inc. might have caused the April 20 explosion, which killed 11 people. Halliburton denied it.

The seas were too rough and the winds too strong Friday to burn off the oil, suck it up effectively with skimmer vessels, or hold it in check with the miles of orange and yellow inflatable booms strung along the coast.

The floating barriers broke loose in the choppy water, and waves sent oily water lapping over them.

"It just can't take the wave action," said Billy Nungesser, president of Louisiana's Plaquemines Parish.

The spill - a slick more than 130 miles long and 70 miles wide - threatens hundreds of species of wildlife, including birds, dolphins and the fish, shrimp, oysters and crabs that make the Gulf Coast one of the nation's most abundant sources of seafood. Louisiana closed some fishing grounds and oyster beds because of the risk of oil contamination.

According to a 2007 study by the federal Minerals Management Service, which examined the 39 rig blowouts in the Gulf of Mexico between 1992 and 2006, cementing was a contributing factor in 18 of the incidents. In all the cases, gas seepage occurred during or after cementing of the well casing, the MMS said.

At least 1.6 million gallons of oil have spilled, according to Coast Guard estimates.

As of Friday, only a sheen of oil from the edges of the slick was washing up at Venice, La., and other extreme southeastern portions of Louisiana. But several miles out, the normally blue-green gulf waters were dotted with sticky, pea- to quarter-sized brown beads with the consistency of tar.

High seas were in the forecast through Sunday and could push oil deep into the inlets, ponds, creeks and lakes that line the boot of southeastern Louisiana. With the wind blowing from the south, the mess could reach the Mississippi, Alabama and Florida coasts by Monday.

"These next few days are critical," Louisiana Gov. Bobby Jindal warned.

For days, crews have struggled without success to activate the well's underwater shutoff valve using remotely operated vehicles. They are also drilling a relief well in hopes of injecting mud and concrete to seal off the leak, but that could take three months.

At the rate the oil is pouring from the sea floor, the leak could eclipse the worst oil accident in U.S. history - the 11 million gallons that spilled from the supertanker Exxon Valdez off Alaska in 1989 - in just two months.

U.S. Interior Secretary Ken Salazar said he pressed the chief executive of BP to "work harder and faster and smarter to get the job done." He said the government will not rest until BP seals the well and "they clean up every drop of oil."

As for the cause of the accident, he said: "I am confident we will get to the bottom of what happened here. Those responsible will be held accountable."

In the search for creative solutions to the problem, the state of Louisiana opened gates built into the Mississippi River levees in hopes that the rush of fresh water would drive the oil away from the coast. But the tactic did not appear to work.

"The diversion can't compete with the wind right now," said Garret Graves, the governor's adviser on coastal issues.

With the government and BP running out of options, Salazar said he asked other companies across the oil and gas industry "to bring their global expertise to the situation to make sure that no idea worth pursuing is not pursued."

BP likewise sought ideas from some of its rivals and planned to use at least one of them Friday - applying chemicals underwater to break up the oil before it reaches the surface. That has never been attempted before at such depths.

More than 1,900 people, some 300 vessels and dozens of aircraft took part in the effort to contain the slick, Homeland Security Secretary Janet Napolitano said. The Pentagon authorized two massive Air Force C-130 Hercules cargo planes to join civilian craft that have been dumping tens of thousands of gallons of oil-dispersing chemicals.

An animal rescue operation at Fort Jackson, about 70 miles southeast of New Orleans, had its first patient Friday, a bird covered in thick, black oil. The bird, a young northern gannett found offshore, is normally white with a yellow head.

Across the state line in Gulfport, Miss., scientists, veterinarians and researchers at the Institute for Marine Mammal Studies worked frantically to prepare for the possible arrival of hundreds of oily sea mammals. The institute has surgery and exam rooms, eight large pools, and X-ray and ulatrasound equipment.

Dr. Moby Solangi, the nonprofit center's director, said this is birthing season for the roughly 5,000 dolphins along the Mississippi and Louisiana coasts.

"It's very bad timing," he said. "We're looking at a colossal tragedy."

Ten sites that the American Bird Conservancy considers globally important bird areas are directly in the path of the oil slick, the group said.

"This spill spells disaster for birds in this region and beyond," said ABC President George Fenwick. "It is ironic that next weekend is International Migratory Bird Day. At a time when we should be celebrating the beauty and wonder of migratory birds, we could be mourning the worst environmental disaster in recent U.S. history."

Volunteers converged on the coast to offer help.

Valerie Gonsoulin, a 51-year-old kayaker from Lafayette who wore an "America's Wetlands" hat, said she hoped to help spread containment booms.

"I go out in the marshes three times a week. It's my peace and serenity," she said. "I'm horrified. I've been sitting here watching that NASA image grow, and it grows. I knew it would hit every place I fish and love."

Along a canal in St. Bernard Parish, Hal Cyprian tied string on a piece of chicken, tossed it into the water and quickly pulled out a half-dozen crabs. He planned to cook them up as a Mother's Day treat for his wife.

"If the oil comes, then the crabs are through," he said. "That's why I come today."

President Obama, who recently announced plans to open large swaths of the U.S. coast to offshore oil exploration, ordered Salazar to report within 30 days on what new technology is needed to tighten safeguards against spills from deepwater drilling.

"Let me be clear: I continue to believe that domestic oil production is an important part of our overall strategy for energy security," Obama said. "But I've always said that it must be done responsibly for the safety of our workers and our environment."

-- Associated Press

Photo: Oil booms that were placed in preparation of the looming oil spill from last week's collapse and oil spill from the Deepwater Horizon oil rig are strewn along the shoreline by choppy seas in Port Eads, La. on Thursday, April 29, 2010. The high winds continued on Friday. Credit: AP Photo/Gerald Herbert

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