Pentagon on alert as Gulf Coast readies for oil's onslaught

McClatchy NewspapersApril 29, 2010 

WASHINGTON — With crude oil washing up on shore Thursday night on the Gulf Coast, President Barack Obama stepped up federal efforts Thursday to help clean up the spill in the Gulf of Mexico, putting the Department of Defense at the ready and dispatching three Cabinet officers to the scene.

The president spoke Thursday with the governors of Louisiana, Florida, Texas, Alabama and Mississippi, and in brief remarks from the White House Rose Garden he said the government was using "every single available resource at our disposal."

Louisiana Gov. Bobby Jindal declared a state of emergency.

"Unfortunately, things don't look well for the marine life and breeding bird populations along the Louisiana and Mississippi Coast because it is breeding season for many shore and sea birds," said Mozart Dedeaux, the education director of the Pascagoula River Audubon Center.

The highly unusual spill, caused by an explosion on April 20, is estimated to be leaking as many as 210,000 gallons of crude a day — five times larger than first thought — as spreading booms to try to contain the damage. It could continue for weeks.

The impact on wildlife, tourism, coastal state economies and public health will test the Obama administration's disaster-preparedness in coming weeks in a stretch of the country that's still recovering from Hurricane Katrina in 2005.

"We are prepared for the worst case," said U.S. Coast Guard Rear Adm. Sally Brice-O'Hara.

Department of Homeland Security Janet Napolitano, Interior Secretary Ken Salazar and Environmental Protection Agency Administrator Lisa Jackson planned a tour of the Gulf Coast on Friday.

Napolitano declared it a "spill of national significance," which helps facilitate federal aid, and she promised Gulf Coast residents to be responsive and "open and transparent." Jackson said her team was analyzing air quality data. Interior officials described beefing up the number of inspectors on the Gulf Coast. Salazar was meeting with industry leaders to determine the next steps.

In Washington, officials emphasized repeatedly that the energy company BP, not the federal government, was responsible and would pay for the cleanup.

Coast Guard officials attempted to barricade coastal shores Thursday, while BP sought new methods of containing the spill.

Booms — made of a lightweight vinyl-coated material that bobs above and below the water's surface — were deployed in environmentally sensitive areas from Bay St. Louis, Miss., to the Grand Bay National Wildlife Refuge area at the Alabama state line.

Northrop Grumman Shipbuilding put out approximately 13,000 feet of containment boom around their shipyard at the Pascagoula River to protect "all Northrop Grumman and U.S. Navy assets," media relations manager Bill Glenn said.

BP is waiting for approval before it attempts an alternative dispersant method, which would shoot the chemical that breaks up the oil directly at the source of the leak some 5,000 feet, or roughly one mile, below the water's surface. By Thursday night, more than 100,000 gallons of dispersant will have been dropped on the spill.

Experts have been consulted because dispersant has never been used at those depths. Some 3,000 more gallons of dispersant have been dispatched and will be arriving at the location soon.

"We want to pursue every technique we can find," said Doug Suttles, the CEO of BP for exploration and production.

Coast Guard Rear Adm. Mary Landry said this was a "novel idea," but that it must be evaluated properly and the environmental impact of pumping dispersants deep into the ocean must be considered. "We don't have pre-approval on the plan. This may be the first time we allow it in U.S. history," she said.

BP was operating the Deepwater Horizon rig about 40 miles offshore when it exploded last week. Eleven crew members are missing and presumed dead.

Among its other potential victims, the disaster threatens Obama's plan to expand offshore drilling in the Atlantic, the Gulf of Mexico and north Alaska, and complicates prospects for any climate change legislation that relies on a deal between advocates of more domestic oil and gas production and those who want to limit greenhouse-gas emissions.

Sen. Bill Nelson, D-Fla., said Thursday that he was filing legislation to block expanded drilling. A bipartisan group of Florida federal and state lawmakers is stepping up its opposition to plans to bring oil rigs within 125 miles of Florida's gulf coastline, and other coastal state lawmakers are voicing second thoughts.

Carol Browner, Obama's energy and climate change adviser, said that the federal government's recent lifting of a moratorium on new oil and gas exploration and drilling marked "the beginning of a process," not a foregone conclusion. She said that "obviously what's occurring now will also be taken into consideration."

White House Press Secretary Robert Gibbs emphasized that the BP accident occurred in an area that's responsible for as much as a third of domestic oil production, with "hundreds of oil and gas wells in this area" operating without incident, and that no useful determinations about broader policy can be made yet because "we don't know what caused this."

Even so, several Democratic lawmakers who already opposed expanded drilling said Thursday that they planned to ask Obama to reconsider his position on drilling. Several took to the Senate floor to recount the damage from the 1989 Exxon Valdez spill, which this one threatens to rival.

Sen. Frank Lautenberg, D-N.J., said the spill "vividly highlights the big risks involved. This was supposed to be a sophisticated operation, and look what happened. It's not too late to step back.''

Sen. Benjamin Cardin, D-Md., said, "The climate is only going to get more favorable for changing what the president has done, unfortunately. If you had a similar spill in Virginia, clearly it would threaten the Chesapeake Bay, and it may have gotten to New York."

However, one moderate Democrat, Sen. Mary Landrieu of Louisiana, defended offshore drilling:

"We must continue to drill. Should we have our oil coming 100 percent from Saudi Arabia or Venezuela or Honduras or West Africa? We have to take responsibility to drill where we can drill safely. Out away from our shores is as safe as we can be. We obviously have to improve our technology, and that we will. Retreat, we won't."

Republicans, too, defended drilling.

Sen. Lisa Murkowski of Alaska, the top Republican on the Senate Energy and Natural Resources committee, said in a statement that "it could take months before we have all of the answers about what happened." She said it was important to ensure as much safety as possible, but that deepwater exploration expanded the reach of drilling technology in the Gulf of Mexico and "has become critical to our nation's energy supply."

(Karen Nelson and Donna Melton of The Sun Herald in Biloxi, Miss., and Lesley Clark and Renee Schoof contributed to this article.)

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