Gov. Bobby Jindal declared a state of emergency and the federal government sent in skimmers and booms Thursday as oil from a massive spill in the Gulf of Mexico oozed toward the fragile coastline.
Coast Guard Rear Adm. Sally Brice-O’Hara said at the White House that the government’s priority was to support oil company BP PLC as it fights to hold back the oil surging from the seabed in amounts much higher than previously estimated.
BP was operating the Deepwater Horizon, which was drilling in 5,000 feet of water about 40 miles offshore when it exploded last week. Eleven crew members are missing and presumed dead, and the government says 5,000 barrels of oil a day are spewing from the blown-out well underneath it.
Those who count on the Gulf for their livelihoods fretted Thursday about oil that could reach the coast as soon as Friday.
In Empire, La., Frank and Mitch Jurisich could smell the oil coming from just beyond the murky water where their family has harvested oysters for three generations.
“About 30 minutes ago we started smelling it,” Mitch Jurisich said. “That’s when you know it’s getting close and it hits you right here.”
They spent Thursday hauling in enough oysters to fill more than 100 burlap sacks, stopping to eat some because it might be their last chance before oil contaminates them.
The Coast Guard urged BP to formally request more resources from the Defense Department. President Barack Obama has dispatched Homeland Security Secretary Janet Napolitano, Interior Secretary Ken Salazar and Environmental Protection Agency administrator Lisa Jackson to help with the spill. The president said his administration will use “every single available resource at our disposal” to respond.
Obama directed officials to aggressively confront the spill, but the cost of the cleanup will fall on BP, spokesman Nick Shapiro said.
An executive for BP PLC said on NBC’s “Today” that the company would welcome help from the military.
“We’ll take help from anyone,” said Doug Suttles, chief operating officer for BP Exploration and Production.
A third leak at the well site was discovered Wednesday, and government officials said the amount coming out is five times as much as originally estimated.
Suttles had initially disputed the government’s estimate, and that the company was unable to handle the operation to contain it.
But early Thursday, he acknowledged on “Today” that the leak may be as bad as the government says. He said there was no way to measure the flow at the seabed and estimates have to come from how much oil makes it to the surface.
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 in 1989.
As dawn broke Thursday in the oil industry hub of Venice, about 75 miles from New Orleans and not far from the mouth of the Mississippi River, crews loaded an orange oil boom aboard a supply boat at Bud’s Boat Launch. There, local officials expressed frustration with the pace of the government’s response and the communication they were getting from the Coast Guard and BP officials.
“We’re not doing everything we can do,” said Billy Nungesser, president of Plaquemines Parish, which straddles the Mississippi River at the tip of Louisiana.
There’s a growing tension in towns like Port Sulphur and Empire along Louisiana 23, which runs south of New Orleans along the Mississippi River into prime oyster and shrimping waters.
Companies like Chevron and ConocoPhillips have facilities nearby, and some are hesitant to criticize BP or the federal government, knowing the oil industry is as much a staple here as the fishermen.
“I don’t think there’s a lot of blame going around here, people are just concerned about their livelihoods,” said Sullivan Vullo, who owns La Casa Cafe in Port Sulphur.
Louisiana has opened a special shrimp season along parts of the coast so shrimpers can harvest the profitable white shrimp before the spill has an effect.
The spill has moved steadily toward the mouth of the Mississippi River and the wetland areas east of it, home to hundreds of species of wildlife and near some rich oyster grounds.
Jindal on Thursday declared a state of emergency so officials could begin preparing for the oil’s impact. His declaration says at least 10 wildlife management areas and refuges in his state and neighboring Mississippi are in the oil plume’s path. It also notes that billions of dollars have been invested in coastal restoration projects that may be at risk.
Mike Brewer, 40, who lost his oil spill response company in the devastation of Hurricane Katrina nearly five years ago, said the area was accustomed to the occasional minor spill. But he feared the scale of the escaping oil was beyond the capacity of existing resources.
“You’re pumping out a massive amount of oil. There is no way to stop it,” he said.
A fleet of boats working under an oil industry consortium has been using booms to corral and then skim oil from the surface.
Crews operating submersible robots tried and failed to activate a shut-off device to halt the flow of oil on the sea bottom. A controlled test to burn the leaking oil was successful Wednesday, but conditions Thursday did not allow for more burns.
BP has asked local fishermen for help. A memo from Sen. David Vitter’s office said BP was seeking to contract with shrimp boats, oyster boats and other vessels for hire to help with deploying containment boom in the Gulf. Staging areas were in Venice, La.; Mobile, Ala.; Pascagoula and Biloxi, Miss.; and Pensacola, Fla. Information on the “Vessel Opportunity Program” also was posted on Sen. Mary Landrieu’s website.
Hai Huynh, 39, and his 22-year-old deck hand Robert Huynh were ready to help however they could even though the Coast Guard will only allow vessels with lifeboats to help with carrying oil booms to contain the spill.
“We want to go out and help clean up the oil,” Robert Huynh said aboard their freshly painted steel-hulled shrimp boat, the Miss Kimberly. “We’re ready.”
Associated Press writers Janet McConnaughey, Kevin McGill Michael Kunzelman and Brett Martel in New Orleans, Melinda Deslatte in Baton Rouge and Holbrook Mohr in Empire contributed to this report.