Change in weather gives crews more time to fight oil spill

McClatchy NewspapersMay 3, 2010 

GULFPORT, Miss. — Shifting and easing winds on Monday bought time for weather-beaten crews to bottle up and burn off a massive slick of rust-colored crude oil before it fouls fragile marshes and sugary beaches across four Gulf Coast states.

That reprieve, however, could also have a nasty ripple effect — pushing outlying plumes of polluted surface water and patches of tar balls into the Gulf of Mexico's powerful loop current. That would propel the mess across the mangrove islands, seagrass beds and coral reefs of the Florida Keys, then up toward Miami Beach, Fort Lauderdale and beyond.

Trajectories from the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration suggest the oil will remain offshore at least through Tuesday, and a University of Miami oceanographer said a weather front expected in 24 to 48 hours will likely begin pushing the spill away from the Gulf Coast and toward the loop current.

Chemical dispersants pumped into the Gulf near where the oil is spewing from the seafloor seemed to be helping to keep oil from floating to the surface, officials reported in a mid afternoon briefing, but efforts to activate a shutoff valve underwater continued to be unsuccessful.

Meanwhile, BP officials said they'd try Tuesday to place the first of three 98-ton steel and concrete containment domes over one of the leaks in hopes of capturing the escaping oil and pumping it to an oil tanker. Officials said they hope that two other containment domes would be in place within the week.

The containment domes, however, aren't certain to work, and preparations continued throughout the Gulf coast for environmental disaster.

"The magnitude of this spill is daunting," said Michael Sole, Florida's secretary of the Department of Environmental Protection, "We still have an ongoing release of some 5,000 barrels of oil occurring just 50 miles off Louisiana. It's not like 'We had a spill. We're cleaning it up and it'll be over.'"

Florida Gov. Charlie Crist Monday added 13 more counties to his declaration of a state of emergency, bringing the total number of countries now threatened by the click to 19.

"It is an enormous mess," Crist said. "It is unbelievable, the magnitude of this thing. Clearly every effort needs to be put on plugging the hole up and stopping the bleeding."

Attorneys general from the five Gulf Coast states also asked President Barack Obama to take legal steps necessary to lay blame for the massive Gulf oil leak.

Chris Bence, a spokesman for Alabama Attorney General Troy King, said a letter was prepared asking the president to clear the way for possible court action. Attorneys general from Florida, Mississippi, Louisiana, and Texas also joined the request.

How serious the damage would eventually be from the spill was still anyone's guess, however.

A flight over the spill found that the slick remains 35 to 55 miles off the Mississippi coast, but that it was clearly affecting the barrier islands off shore.

Patches of oil were clearly visible within the Chandeleur islands. Small patches of what appeared to be rust-colored oil were spotted in the channel between Cat Island and Ship Island, 11 miles south of Gulfport.

An island in the Chandeleurs surrounded with a pink anti-oil boom was covered with nesting birds.

Mississippi state officials said Monday that the oil had advanced 20 miles closer to the coast since Sunday. However, they said Coast Guard officials assured them that they'd get at least 72 hours notice before the oil threatens the coastline.

The spill's political ramifications also were being felt far beyond the Gulf of Mexico. California Gov. Arnold Schwarzenegger announced he could no longer support a controversial new offshore oil drilling project off the Santa Barbara coast.

The plan would have generated $119 million for the cash-strapped state's 2010-11 budget by allowing an oil company to drill from an already existed rig. Schwarzenegger, however, said the risk was simply too high.

"I think that first of all, it's clear that we have to make up that $100 million a year that we (would) make from that," he said. "But if I have a choice between the $100 million and what I see in the Gulf of Mexico, I'd rather just figure out how to make up for that $100 million."

Oceanographers tracking the oil slick said that they are now more convinced than ever that the spill's crude won't be confined to the Gulf.

Satellite images suggest the Gulf's powerful loop current, which moves seasonally, is creeping north, spinning off small whirls of current that University of Miami oceanographer Nick Shay said may already have drawn in the slick's leading, and lightest, edge.

Robert Weisberg, an oceanographer at the University of South Florida, who updates daily tracking models, said the loop is still about 30 miles south of the slick. However, he stressed, "The immediacy of the collision of these two features is real. Will it happen in a day, two days, three days, a week, two weeks? I don't know. I'm not willing to say that yet."

The loop current pushes into the Gulf in a clockwise swirl, spilling into the Straits of Florida through the Keys and then back north in the Gulf Stream up the Atlantic coast.

Shay, a professor of meteorology and physical oceanography at University of Miami's Rosenstiel School of Marine and Atmospheric Science, said the front that will help push the oil away from the coast will also drive it to the loop's outer boundary.

He said he couldn't predict when, or how much, of the slick might be drawn in, but "this heightens my concerns. I hope we're all wrong, of course."

Weisberg's models and studies show material in the loop could reach the Florida Keys within a week.

"It's a matter of about two weeks to get to Miami and another week or so to Cape Hatteras" in North Carolina, he said. "Had this blowout been a little farther south, it would be in the loop current already."

The current could also act as a protective boundary for much of Florida's Gulf Coast, scientists said. It runs so deep that it bends around a shallow coastal shelf that extends 50 miles or more into the Gulf.

On the Atlantic side, however, the Gulf Stream flows much closer in and prevailing winds tend to push things ashore, from seaweed to cruise ship trash.

"If the winds shift and it gets entrained in the loop current, we'll see it" in Miami Beach, said Hans Graber of the University of Miami Center for Southeastern Tropical Advanced Remote Sensing. "No question about it."

(Morgan and Rothaus, of The Miami Herald, reported from Miami. Lee of the Sun-Herald in Biloxi, Miss., reported from Gulfport, Miss. Marc Caputo, Mary Ellen Klas, Lesley Clark, Joseph Goodman of The Miami Herald, and Mary Perez of the Sun Herald and Kevin Yamamura of The Sacramento Bee contributed to this article.)

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