Oil spill 'size of Ireland' threatens US coastline
An oil slick the size of Ireland is threatening to cause a catastrophic environmental disaster off the US coast.
Experts said a series of leaks from a ruptured BP well were pumping 5,000 barrels a day into the Gulf of Mexico and could cause the worst offshore spill in history.
The crisis escalated yesterday when officials realised that five times as much oil as previously thought was leaking from beneath the site where a rig exploded and sank last week.
The US military joined the British energy giant in what was being described as the biggest containment operation ever, involving dozens of ships and aircraft.
The spill was expected to hit the coast of Louisiana today where around 40pc of the nation's wetlands are found and there are important spawning grounds for fish and birds.
Other states including Mississippi, Alabama and Florida could also be badly hit.
The US Coast Guard said a scientist from the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration had concluded that oil was gushing into the sea at the rate of 210,000 gallons (5,000 barrels) a day, five times more than earlier estimated.
Despite attempts to slow its advance by setting it on fire, the slick now has a circumference of about 600 miles and covers about 28,600 sq miles.
Doug Suttles, the head of BP's exploration and production arm, admitted it had discovered a substantial new leak.
He said drilling a relief well to plug the leak, which is a mile down under the sea's surface, could take up to three months.
News of the new leak sent BP's share price tumbling by seven per cent as the Obama administration made clear that the company would foot the bill for the clean-up.
Homeland Security Secretary Janet Napolitano said the spill was a disaster of "national significance" while White House spokesman Robert Gibbs said the government would "use all available resources, possibly including those at the Department of Defence". BP, which says it has been spending €4.6m a day just on its own efforts, is already facing a class-action lawsuit brought by two Louisiana shrimp fishermen who are seeking at least $5m in damages for alleged negligence.
The spill followed an explosion and fire on the Deepwater Horizon drilling rig, leased by BP, on April 20 in which 11 workers are presumed to have died. The rig sank two days later some 50 miles off the coast.
The slick could cause severe environmental damage to Louisiana, Mississippi, Alabama and Florida.
Rear Admiral Mary Landry of the US Coast Guard said: "It is premature to say this is catastrophic. I will say this is very serious."
However, Mike Miller, who runs Safety Boss, an oil well firefighting company, said that the spill "could be right up there, if not the biggest ever".
He said the 1989 Exxon Valdez disaster, in which a tanker spilt 11m gallons of oil off Alaska, "is going to pale into insignificance in comparison to this as it goes on".
Mr Miller, whose company became famous by dousing oil fires in Kuwait after the Gulf War, said the new slick bore comparison with the Kuwait fires.
However, this was likely to be far more damaging as it was at sea rather than in the desert. (© Daily Telegraph, London)