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Gulf Oil spill: The military moves in

April 30, 2010 |  2:26 pm

Two Air Force planes will spray chemicals to help break up the Gulf Coast oil spill, Pentagon officials said Friday as they considered what more the military could do to assist. The two C-130 Hercules cargo planes were staging for their flights at Lake Charles, La., after getting their orders Friday, Pentagon press secretary Geoff Morrell said. The planes were sent from the Youngstown Air Reserve Station in Ohio on Thursday.

Defense Secretary Robert Gates also was considering a request from Louisiana Gov. Bobby Jindal for the federal government to pay for 6,000 National Guard soldiers and airmen who were mobilized Friday to help with security, medical needs, engineering and other tasks. Some officials, including Jindal and Sen. David Vitter (R-La.), had called for the federal government to step up its already escalating efforts to assist in fighting what could well become the most damaging oil spill in U.S. history.

Asked whether he was confident the military was doing all it could to help, Morrell said: “We are confident that we are providing what has been asked of us and what is required of us at this point.” But he noted that the situation continued to evolve as oil seeped into Louisiana's wetlands and threatened to push deeper inland.

“This is a dynamic, changing situation,” Morrell said, and the military will help as needed.The Navy said Thursday that it was sending booms, skimmers and contractors, and opening two of its bases in Mississippi and Florida as staging areas. The help was provided under existing agreements the two services have with the Coast Guard for such efforts. U.S. Northern Command has officers on the coast working with the Department of Homeland Security to figure out what more may be needed, Morrell said.

Meanwhile, Louisiana and federal officials criticized the oil company responsible for the ongoing oil leak into the Gulf of Mexico on Friday, calling BP’s response “not adequate” to seal the leak and 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 officials and engineers “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 wellhead, and until they clean up every drop of oil.”

The criticisms, leveled during a news conference that also included a BP representative, reflect the difficult balancing act the administration faces as it increasingly takes ownership of disaster response in a region still angry over the Bush administration’s reaction to Hurricane Katrina in 2005. The Obama administration has ramped up its response efforts – and its public efforts to reassure Gulf Coast residents – in recent days. At the same time, officials have stressed that BP bears financial and legal responsibility for the spill and its cleanup.

(UPDATE:Sen. Mary Landrieu (D-La.), told a Louisiana radio station that “local officials do deserve more specific information, so they can order booms and equipment and the protection they need to keep oil out of places like Grand Isle beaches, Lake Pontchartrain and Terrebonne, Lafourche, Plaquemines and St. Bernard parishes. The federal officials are aware that the communication could be better, and hopefully we’ll see a real change in the next 24 hours.”

Sen. David Vitter (R-La.), said in a press release that “BP is spread too thin in trying to both cap the well and remediate the damage along the coastline, producing an inefficient and ineffective response. I urge all involved to allow BP to focus all of its efforts on building a dome and drilling a relief well at the source of the spill so that federal and state officials can focus their efforts on protecting and cleaning up the coast.” )

The federal effort, led by the Coast Guard, oversees all of BP’s activities and extends to nearly every aspect of the spill. Officials said they have deployed 1,900 federal workers to protect coastal areas and wildlife, up from about 1,200 on Thursday. The government has supplied more than 217,000 feet of oil containment barriers and recovered more than 20,000 barrels of oil-water mix.

The Environmental Protection Agency is bringing in two mobile labs to test air quality in the gulf region and stepping up monitoring from existing test sites, Administrator Lisa P. Jackson said. On Friday, EPA scientists began water-quality sampling in the gulf. 

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 has already leased, and its next offshore lease sale is not scheduled until August.

--Jim Tankersley/Los Angeles Times with Associated Press

Photo: Oil skimmer and support boats sit at the Mississippi State Port in Gulfport, Mississippi, Friday, April 30, 2010. The equipment is from Naval Supervisor of Salvage and will be deployed along the west end of Ship Island. State and federal officials are making efforts to protect delicate ecosystems from oil spilling from a sunken rig in the Gulf of Mexico. Credit: John Fitzhugh/Biloxi Sun Herald/MCT