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Coast scrambles as oil spill approaches

MISSISSIPPI GULF COAST — Oil from a massive spill in the Gulf of Mexico was oozing into Louisiana’s ecologically rich wetlands today as storms threatened to frustrate desperate protection efforts.

Now, officials expect the oil spill will reach the Mississippi coastline as early as tomorrow.

The National Weather Service predicted winds, high tides and waves through Sunday that could push oil deep into the inlets, ponds and lakes that line the boot of Southeast Louisiana. Seas of six to seven feet were pushing tides several feet above normal toward the Coast, compounded by thunderstorms expected in the area Friday.

Crews will be unable to skim oil from the surface or burn it off for the next couple of days because of the weather, Coast Guard Rear Adm. Sally Brice-O’Hara said on ABC’s “Good Morning America.”

Waves may also wash over booms strung out just off shorelines to stop the oil, said Tom McKenzie, a spokesman for U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service, which is hoping booms will keep oil off the Chandeleur Islands, part of a national wildlife refuge.

“The challenge is, are they going to hold up in any kind of serious weather,” McKenzie said. “And if there’s oil, will the oil overcome the barriers even though they’re … executed well?”

Gov. Haley Barbour said yesterday that oil-collection booms were being placed along environmentally sensitive areas of Mississippi’s Gulf Coast amid warnings by federal officials that the oil slick could begin making landfall in the state on Saturday.

Barbour said two state departments — the Mississippi Department of Environmental Quality and Mississippi Department of Marine Resources — are working with federal authorities, the oil company BP and private contractors.

BP operated the drilling rig that exploded and sank about 50 miles offshore last week, which led to the spill. The company is directing the cleanup and trying to stop the leak.

“While we continue to hope that BP, its contractors and the federal departments that make up the unified command will succeed in shutting off the leaks and preventing any landfall by oil, we are preparing for the worst,” Barbour said in a news release.

Barbour said workers have been collecting water, sediment and fishery samples, and state workers have been flying over state and federal gulf waters to document conditions.

The accident is already ratcheting up debate over offshore drilling, and for now, drilling is dead. David Axelrod, a top advisor to President Obama, says no new oil drilling will be authorized until authorities learn what caused the explosion of the rig Deepwater Horizon.

Obama recently lifted a drilling moratorium for many offshore areas, including the Atlantic and Gulf areas. But Axelrod said Friday “no additional drilling has been authorized and none will until we find out what has happened here.”

Axelrod also defended the administration’s response to the April 20 accident, saying “we had the Coast Guard in almost immediately.” He deflected comparisons with the government’s slow response to Hurricane Katrina in 2005, telling ABC’s “Good Morning America” that such speculation “is always the case in Washington whenever something like this happens.”

A third branch of the U.S. military is now involved in attempts to contain and cleanup the spill. Air Force planes have been sent to Mississippi and are awaiting orders to start dumping chemicals on the oil spill threatening the Gulf Coast. The Navy and Coast Guard are already fighting the spill.

Master Sgt. Bob Barko Jr. said today that two Air Force C-130s specially modified for aerial spraying were sent yesterday from the Youngstown Air Reserve Station in Ohio.

Air Force spokesman Maj. David Faggard at the Pentagon says the planes stand ready in case they’re needed to spray oil-dispersing chemicals.

The Navy also has sent equipment for the cleanup. Pentagon officials are talking with the Department of Homeland Security to figure out what other help the military can provide.

The leak from a blown-out well a mile underwater is five times bigger than first believed. Faint fingers of oily sheen began reaching the Mississippi River delta late yesterday, lapping the Louisiana shoreline in long, thin lines. Thicker oil was farther offshore.

Officials have said they would do everything to keep the Mississippi River open to traffic.

The oil slick could become the nation’s worst environmental disaster in decades, threatening to eclipse even the Exxon Valdez in scope. It imperils hundreds of species of fish, birds and other wildlife along the Gulf Coast, one of the world’s richest seafood grounds, teeming with shrimp, oysters and other marine life.

The Mississippi Department of Marine Resources has issued an advisory to crab fishermen. They are suggesting that fishermen remove their traps as they may be in the way of abatement efforts.

Coast industry is starting to scramble. Omega Protein Corporation has implemented an Incident Response Plan for its Moss Point to minimize effects from the oil spill caused by the recent Deepwater Horizon oil rig explosion. This plan is intended to minimize vessel downtime and business interruptions.

Despite initial information that indicated that the oil spill would not affect its operations, the company currently believes that the oil slick temporarily could have an adverse effect on its ability to operate in the fishing grounds east of the Mississippi River Delta, near its Moss Point facility.

Therefore, effective today, Omega Protein will relocate its nine Moss Point fishing vessels and three carry vessels to fishing grounds on the west side of the Mississippi River Delta. This relocation is expected to last up to four weeks, but may change depending on future developments.

The docking and re-supply areas for the Moss Point fleet will be relocated from Moss Point to the company-owned facility at Morgan City. The company’s Abbeville, La., facility also will be available to provide support as needed.

The company will offload fish from its Moss Point fleet with its carry vessels and process those fish in its usual manner at its Moss Point facility. If access to the Moss Point facility should become restricted, then the company’s carry vessels will offload fish at the company’s Abbeville and Cameron, La., locations, which are unaffected by the oil spill. The company cannot predict what affect this response plan or oil spill will have on its fish catch or processing efficiency.

The company does not believe that the Gulf Coast menhaden fishery will be affected by any contamination from the oil spill.

One of Mississippi’s largest private employers, Northrop Grumman, said it was deploying a 13,000-foot boom around its Pascagoula shipyard to protect company- and Navy-owned property. A company statement said it has a round-the-clock watch for the oil spill, and employees remain in contact with government officials.

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