Oil spill may become largest in U.S. history

Time may be running out Thursday for the U.S. Coast Guard and BP officials scrambling to head off a looming ecological disaster.

Homeland Security Secretary Janet Napolitano on Thursday designated a widening oil slick pill in the Gulf of Mexico as “a spill of national significance.”

Not only was a third leak discovered late Wednesday that government officials said is spewing five times as much oil into the water than originally estimated, but the spill might be closer to shore than previously known, and could have oil washing up on shore by Friday.

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

National Oceanic Atmospheric Administration experts now estimate that 5,000 barrels a day of oil are spilling into the gulf. Federal officials announced inspections would begin immediately of all oil rigs in the Gulf and subpoena powers would be used in the gathering investigation.

Florida Fish and Wildlife Conservation Commission staff have been deployed to the Panhandle and Alabama to help with track the oil spill in the Gulf of Mexico.

FWC’s Fish and Wildlife Research Institute’s director, Gil McRae, also told the commission on Thursday that the spill is growing and that there have been no confirmed ill effects on wildlife so far.

SOUTH FLORIDA

The slick’s leading edge drifted toward the salt marshes of the Louisiana Delta, only 20 miles from a fragile wetland rich with shrimp, crabs and crayfish. But response teams in Mississippi, Alabama and the Florida Panhandle were carefully watching shifting winds that could ultimately steer the 4,000-square-mile blob just about anywhere on the Gulf Coast.

The spill was near the Gulf’s powerful “loop current,” which could potentially suck in the brown goo and spit it back out in the form of tar balls, fouling the Florida Keys and beaches of Miami-Dade and Broward. But the Coast Guard’s highest-ranking officer said South Florida appeared to be out of the impact zone — at least for now.

“I’m not going to rule anything out, but it’s pretty remote,” said Adm. Thad Allen, commandant of the Coast Guard, which is directing efforts to contain the spreading spill while BP Exploration and Production struggles to seal its well 5,000 feet below the ocean.

Allen, in an interview with The Miami Herald’s Editorial Board Wednesday, said if the well can’t be capped quickly, the accident could potentially surpass the notorious Exxon Valdez — which dumped 11 million gallons of crude into Alaska’s Prince William Sound in 1989 — as the largest discharge in North American history.

VALVE FAILURE

BP, which operated the floating rig that exploded last week, killing 11 workers, has failed in efforts to close a shutoff valve with robotic subs. Deploying a dome to collect and pump leaking oil has worked in shallower coastal areas, but never in such deep water, and could take weeks. The permanent fix, drilling a relief well, could take months.

There also is concern that the damaged wellhead could give way, spewing up to 100,000 gallons a day from the site about 50 miles south of Venice, La.

``If we lose the integrity of that wellhead, it could be a catastrophic spill,” Allen said.

The Coast Guard was already treating the spill as a worst-case scenario, Allen said, putting coastal crews on notice from Venice to Pensacola and using every tool in the slick-fighting book. Nearly 50 vessels were working the spill, either skimming oil or spraying dispersant to break it up.

TEST FIRES

With the plume still growing, the Coast Guard took the extraordinary step of trying to burn off large patches of it, beginning with test fires Wednesday.

``What we want to do is fight the oil spill as far off shore as we can,” Allen said.

Wherever it winds up, the spill promises a messy and expensive cleanup at the least and potentially a major ecological disaster. Because the spill is far from land, industry experts predicted the sun and waves would dilute the impact to a degree, breaking up and evaporating much of it.

Edward Overton, a professor emeritus of environmental sciences at Louisiana State University in Baton Rouge, said it could still be nasty stuff to clean from marshes or beaches. Overton, who tested samples for the Coast Guard and the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration, said the oil has an unusually high amount of asphaltene — heavy ingredients that make it more suitable for paving roads than powering cars.

``My level of apprehension went from moderate to the red zone when we found this stuff,” he said. ``It’s not going to be easy to degrade. It’s not going to be easy to burn. It’s not going to be easy to disperse.”

While the slick might not roll ashore as feather-coating ooze, the oil could still do broad and chronic damage. Those tarry lumps, scientists say, can become poison pills spread through the food chain from sea grasses to pelicans to crabs.

TRACKING SPILL

Nick Shay and Villy Kourafalou, professors at the University of Miami’s Rosenstiel School of Marine and Atmospheric Science who have been tracking the spill, said a shift to the south could pull it into the loop current, which pushes into the Gulf in a clockwise swirl, spills back into the Straits of Florida through the Keys and then back north in the Gulf Stream, where prevailing winds push material onto tourist-filled beaches.

Shay, a professor of meteorology and physical oceanography, said it was impossible to predict where the spill might wind up. He said some oil could get swept up in small ``cyclones” that swirl from the loop. The loop moves larval shrimp and fish from shallow estuaries into open water, but it also can pump everything from chemical runoff to red tide down toward the Keys, Shay said.

``Whether it’s nutrients, whether it’s bacteria, whether it’s toxic material, it’s a transport mechanism,” he said.

Kourafalou echoed Shay, saying the loop current was largely overlooked in the decision by the White House this year to expand oil and gas exploration into areas of the Gulf where the effect is the strongest.

``Things come through the Keys. Things that happen in the Gulf will find their way here one way or another,” said Kourafalou, a research associate professor.

Doug Helton, incident operations coordinator for the NOAA team tracking and projecting the spill’s movement, echoed Allen’s view, downplaying risks to South Florida.

Helton said the current remains well south of the spill but stressed that NOAA’s predictions extend only out 72 hours. The slick already has floated back across the rig site once. It’s also continually changing and unlike anything crews have dealt with before — a mix of both degrading and fresh oil.

In Washington, meanwhile, Florida lawmakers seized on the spill to persuade the Obama administration to back off its plans for expanding drilling that they consider a threat to Florida’s coastline and tourist-driven economy.

MAKING AN APPEAL

Tampa-area U.S. Reps. Kathy Castor, a Democrat, and Bill Young, a Republican, crossed the aisle to send a letter to President Barack Obama, asking that he reconsider the administration’s plans to bring rigs within 125 miles of Florida’s Gulf coastline.

``Fisheries, tourism, the health of the Gulf’s pristine beaches are all imperiled by this massive slick looming just 90 miles from the Florida Panhandle,” the two wrote. They were circulating the letter to the entire Florida delegation and hoped to gather as many signatures as possible, Castor said.

The spill comes just weeks after Obama outlined plans to lift a ban on drilling.

White House spokesman Nick Shapiro said Thursday the cost of the cleanup will fall on BP PLC, the company that operated the rig. The military is working to determine how its array of aircraft, ships and equipment might be able to assist the cleanup operation, he said.

``The president is very closely monitoring the situation,” Deputy Press Secretary Bill Burton said Wednesday, adding that the ``highest levels of the administration” have met with BP — which is spending $6 million a day on the spill — to discuss the cleanup.

Obama administration officials say the Gulf Coast oil rig spill will be considered in the expansion of offshore drilling and will become part of the debate on climate change in Congress.

White House press secretary Robert Gibbs said Thursday that the cause, still not determined, could impact what areas the government would open for future drilling.

Speaking Thursday on NBC’s Today show, an executive for BP PLC said the company would welcome help from the U.S. military.

“We’ll take help from anyone,” BP Chief Operating Officer Doug Suttles said.

President Barack Obama spoke Thursday with five Gulf state governors from Florida to Texas.

The administration declared the spill to be one of national significance, a designation that eases the transfer of personnel and equipment to the region from all parts of the country.

Michael Sole, chief of Florida’s Environmental Protection Department, said governments are digging in for a long struggle and it’s too soon to know what his state will need from Washington.

“It’s only been a week now,” he said. “It may be two or three months before they can stop the discharge. The magnitude of this thing gives me concerns as to whether they’re going to be able to address the entire coast of the Gulf of Mexico.”

So far, he said, the federal government has acted aggressively and cooperatively.

Miami Herald staff writers Curtios Morgan and Lesley Clark and The Associated Press contributed to this report.

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