Rising winds and waves hamper oil slick clean-up
Rising winds and 10ft seas threatened last night to overwhelm a desperate effort by the US military and thousands of commercial fishermen to contain the giant oil slick creeping hour by hour into some of the world's most sensitive wetlands.
As BP accepted full responsibility for the Gulf Coast disaster for the first time, US President Barack Obama kept open the option of increased offshore drilling.
Locals in the Mississippi delta said that federal help had come too late and wildlife officials forecasted a clean up that could take up to five years.
The first filmy layers of oil, floating on the sea's surface, reached the coast on Thursday night near the Pass a l'Outre, the northernmost of three major outlets for the Mississippi River on the east side of the delta.
Heavier oil is expected to start pushing up the creeks and canals over the weekend, driven by an onshore wind that yesterday was creating 5ft swells even in protected waters.
Hundreds of oil workers recruited by BP and the US government gathered in Venice, the delta's major oil town, ready to deploy with inflatable booms and skimming devices.
Further east, the US air force mobilised Hercules transport planes equipped with chemical spraying systems while the navy sent skimming equipment and 66,000ft of booms to its main staging point in Gulfport, Mississippi.
The governor of Florida followed Louisiana in declaring an emergency yesterday as the slick headed for his state's coast. Thousands of volunteers swamped hotlines set up from Texas to Florida hoping to help with the clean-up operation, but nine days after the explosion on the Deepwater Horizon oil rig there was more sign of readiness to act than action.
"We're waiting for orders," one worker in Venice said. Most military personnel were on standby, at the mercy of the wind.
"It's coming from the southeast and it's just pounding it on to our shoreline," said David Arnesen, the owner of two fishing boats. "It's going to blow hard all weekend and we're not going to get a break till Monday. The booms are going to be useless in 25-knot winds. It's about as bad as it could be."
Where the true wilderness of the delta begins, five miles south of Venice, gulls and blue heron wheeled yesterday in the wind, as yet unscathed. But returning fishermen described the pungent smell of the slick.
New Orleans- based environmentalist Rebecca Lang said it was only a matter of time before the oil that sustains Louisiana's biggest industry destroyed its most precious eco-system.
"It's going to be awful, horrendous," she said. "The fish, the birds and the oyster beds have been part of our culture since the 1800s, and this could be worse than (Exxon) Valdez."
Sea-bed gushers left by the Deepwater Horizon explosion are pumping 210,000 barrels of crude into the Gulf a day. If the leaks are not capped the scale of the disaster will eclipse the Exxon Valdez tragedy.
The slick is already 965km in circumference, posing a $2.5bn (€1.8bn) threat this year alone to the Louisiana fishing industry and the risk of $3bn (€2.2bn) in lost revenues for the state's tourist sector, according to one analyst.
For wildlife, the timing could hardly be worse. It has come at spawning time for the Atlantic blue-fin tuna, and migration time for Gulf sea turtles. It's feared hundreds of turtles may already be trapped in the slick. (© The Times, London)