PANAMA CITY, Fla. — As Mother Nature kept the man-made oil slick in the Gulf of Mexico from making landfall, emergency workers along the Gulf Coast Tuesday stepped up their efforts to defend sensitive shorelines and oil giant BP began what could a months-long process to stanch the flow of crude from its runaway well.
Thousands of volunteers descended on the region to help avert a looming environmental crisis as meteorologists warned that the calm winds and mild seas that kept the two-week old oil spill relatively intact Tuesday could push the slick toward the Florida Panhandle on Thursday.
Officials at the Unified Area Command in Mobile, Ala., said there were unconfirmed reports that the oil sheen may have reached the Chandeleur Islands off the Louisiana coast — journalists overflying the area on Monday reported patches of oil visible within the islands. Small patches of what appeared to be rust-colored oil also were spotted in the channel between Cat Island and Ship Island, 11 miles south of Gulfport, Miss.
Weather models suggested, however, that the bulk of the slick won't make landfall before the end of the week, officials said.
"Let me phrase it this way," said Alabama Gov. Bob Riley after flying over the slick Tuesday. "It is a great thing that we have a few more days to make sure we get all of the booms and barricades in place."
In Washington, Pentagon officials authorized the use of National Guard troops to assist. As many as 6,000 in Louisiana can be mobilized; 3,000 in Alabama; 2,500 in Florida and 6,000 in Mississippi.
Meanwhile, British Petroleum kept working 5,000 feet beneath the sea to stop the well's hemorrhage of an estimated 210,000 gallons a day.
BP said work had begun on a relief well to intercept the leaking well about 13,000 feet below the seabed and permanently seal it. However, the process could take three months, the company said.
BP Group Chief Executive Tony Hayward said the company was also planning to deploy an underwater box — called a coffer dam — to cover one of the leaks and allow the oil to be pumped safely to the surface.
Asked about that outlook for that operation, Hayward said, "No one can answer that with any finality." The operation has never been attempted in 5,000 feet of water, he said in Washington. "This is all firsts."
Amid growing criticism of BP's response to the spill, which began when the well exploded on April 20, setting an enormous fire that sank the Deepwater Horizon drilling rig two days later, BP also announced that it would award four $25 million block grants to Mississippi, Florida, Alabama and Louisiana to help pay for the clean up.
"That will just be the tip of the iceberg if they can't cap that well," said Florida emergency management chief Dave Halstead.
The political battle over offshore drilling continued unabated.
U.S. Sen. Bill Nelson, D-Fla., predicted that the Obama administration's plan to open the Outer Continental Shelf to more drilling is "dead on arrival'' because of the massive spill.
Nelson, a longtime offshore drilling opponent, appeared at a Capitol Hill news conference with fellow drilling foes, New Jersey Sens. Bob Menendez and Frank Lautenberg, both Democrats, who vowed to oppose any climate change legislation that includes increased offshore drilling.
"There are plenty of reasons, environmentally and economically to avoid what is happening as we speak, with 5,000 gallons gushing from an undersea volcano every day," Nelson said. "This is the battle we have been fighting in Florida, and sadly it now takes this environmental and economic disaster to remind everyone how lethal oil production is, even when it's just 42 miles off the Louisiana coast."
President Barack Obama had hoped the suggestion of more oil drilling would help lawmakers gain bipartisan support for a climate change bill, but Nelson said he's told lawmakers working on the legislation that if "offshore drilling off the coast of the U.S. is part of it, this legislation isn't going anywhere."
A new poll found, however, that a majority of Americans continue to support the administration's plans to allow expansion of offshore drilling. A Web-based Zogby poll of 3,183 likely voters released Tuesday found that 63 percent favor Obama's plan, though a majority — 62 percent — also supported suspending the plan pending the investigation into the oil spill. The poll has a margin of error of 1.8 percentage points.
Speaking to the Business Council in Washington, Obama said he wants to see those affected by the spill "employed in helping in the cleanup'' to help with limiting its economic damage.
Thousands of volunteers headed to the region to help with the cleanup.
In Pensacola, Fla., 200 people finished a crash course on the cleanup of toxic materials, and more were on the waiting list.
"If the oil gets here and its as bad as it could be, it will be overwhelming," said Steve Davis, a health and safety manager who teaches the class. "They will need a force that can help."
In Panama City, commercial fisherman Danny Fiddler, 59, came ashore Tuesday morning with a boat full of yellow-edged grouper. It was a $25,000 load and perhaps one of the last hauls into Panama City from Gulf waters now covered in oil.
"The oil is out there and its coming," Fiddler said. "I was thinking about that when I was coming in. This place might not be the same the next time I see it from the water."
(Recio reported from Washington, and Miami Herald reporters Burch, Goodman and Wyss reported from Pensacola, Panama City and Miami, respectively. Contributing to this report were Lesley Clark in Washington, Anita Lee of the Sun Herald in Biloxi, Miss., Kevin Yamamura of the Sacramento Bee in Sacramento, and Miami Herald reporters Jennifer Lebovich in Miami and Mary Ellen Klas in Tallahassee.
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