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Gulf of Mexico oil leak called spill of ‘national significance’

April 29, 2010 | 10:49 am
The growing oil leak in the Gulf of Mexico was designated a spill of national significance and three top Cabinet officials will tour the site, the federal government said Thursday as it stepped up its efforts to deal with the environmental disaster.

President Obama is prepared to use “all available options” at his disposal, including the deployment of Defense Department technology, to try to stop the oil leak, White House Press Secretary Robert Gibbs told reporters at a briefing with several top administration officials.

“This is a spill of national significance,” Homeland Security Secretary Janet Napolitano told reporters at the White House briefing. The designation means that assets from around the country and especially from other coastal areas can be used to fight the spill.

Officials said they expect oil from a well off Louisiana to reach the Mississippi Delta and its fragile wetlands by the end of Friday or early Saturday. They also said the government would open a federal command center in Mobile, Ala., joining one center already open in Robert, La., to oversee the response to the spill.

“We are being very aggressive and we are prepared for the worst case,” Coast Guard Rear Adm. Sally Brice O'Hare said.

Interior Secretary Ken Salazar is already in Houston at the command center operated by BP. Napolitano and Environmental Protection Agency administrator Lisa P. Jackson will also head to the Gulf Coast on Friday.

The “national significance” designation represented the seriousness of the threat from the oil spill, officials said. But officials hesitated to make comparisons to the massive Alaskan oil spill from the tanker Exxon Valdez, which remains etched in the American consciousness.

Because of laws passed after that 1989 spill, responders have employed better technology, immediately after the spill, “to ensure this is not an Exxon Valdez type of case,” O’Hare said.

The crisis began last week when the oil rig Deepwater Horizon sank after it exploded and ignited days earlier. Of its crew of 126, 11 are missing and presumed dead.

The rig was owned by Transocean Ltd. and operated by BP, which is responsible for the cleanup.

Officials are still investigating the cause of the explosion and fire and the subsequent leaks.

The oil slick has crept to within 12 miles of the coast. A third leak was discovered, which government officials said is spewing five times as much oil into the water as originally estimated — about 5,000 barrels a day coming from the well 40 miles offshore.

Officials have praised BP for their efforts in fighting the spills. An executive for BP PLC, which operated the oil rig, said on Thursday that the company welcomed all help.

“We'll take help from anyone,” said Doug Suttles, chief operating officer for BP Exploration and Production, said on NBC’s “Today” show.

If the well cannot be closed, almost 100,000 barrels of oil, or 4.2 million gallons, could spill into the gulf before crews can drill a relief well to alleviate the pressure. By comparison, the Exxon Valdez, the worst oil spill in U.S. history, leaked 11 million gallons into Alaska's Prince William Sound.

--Jim Tankersley, reporting from Washington

--Michael Muskal, Reporting from Los Angeles
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