WASHINGTON — Homeland Security Secretary Janet Napolitano on Thursday designated a widening oil slick pill in the Gulf of Mexico as "a spill of national significance" as government officials acknowledged that the amount of oil spewing daily from the well is far more than earlier thought.
The designation of the spill as a national event allows the White House to dispatch the U.S. military to assist in efforts to contain the spill, which now covers more than 4,000 square miles of the Gulf and threatens to become the largest oil spill in the nation's history.
White House press secretary Robert Gibbs said the administration may dispatch military ships to the area, and a spokesman for BP, the oil company whose well exploded last week, said the company would welcome such help.
President Barack Obama began his daily intelligence briefing with an update on the spill. Obama then announced that he was dispatching three Cabinet secretaries, including Napolitano, the head of the Environmental Protection Agency, Lisa Jackson, and Interior Secretary Ken Salazar to the site.
Meanwhile, Democratic and Republican members of Congress from Florida urged Obama to rethink his plans to lift a ban on offshore oil drilling, and Louisiana Gov. Bobby Jindal, a Republican, declared a state of emergency. In Mississippi, state officials began compiling a priority list of where to place booms to intercept the oil and environmental groups took names of volunteers will to clean oil-soaked birds.
Tampa-area U.S. Reps. Kathy Castor, a Democrat, and Bill Young, a Republican, said the administration plan, which could place oil rigs within 125 miles of Florida's Gulf coastline, threatened Florida's economy.
"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 Senate Energy and Natural Resources Committee, which oversees offshore energy development, will hold a hearing May 6 to look at the Interior Department's plans to lift the drilling ban, as well as the accident in the Gulf of Mexico.
Coast Guard efforts to contain the spill have met with little success. Efforts to burn off part of the spill were on hold Thursday because of high winds.
National Oceanic Atmospheric Administration experts are estimating that 5,000 barrels a day of oil are spilling into the gulf. 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 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 along the Atlantic Coast. 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.
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.
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.
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.