Thick oil reaches Louisiana coast

LOUISIANA GULF COAST — Gulf of Mexico as another edge of the partly submerged crude reached a powerful current that could take it to Florida and beyond.

Brown ooze that coated marsh grasses and hung in the shallow water of a wetland at Louisiana’s southeastern tip was the first heavy oil seen on shore since a BP PLC seafloor well blew out following an April 20 rig explosion. Gov. Bobby Jindal declared yesterday it was just the outer edge of the real spill, much heavier than the oily sheen seen before.

“This is the heavy oil that everyone’s been fearing that is here now,” Jindal said during a boat tour. The wetlands at the mouth of the Mississippi are home to rare birds, mammals and a wide variety of marine life.

The National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration said yesterday that a small portion of the slick had entered the so-called loop current, a stream of faster moving water that circulates around the Gulf before bending around Florida and up the Atlantic coast. Its arrival may portend a wider environmental catastrophe affecting the Florida Keys and tourist-dotted beaches along that state’s east coast.

Tracking the unpredictable spill and the complex loop current is a challenge for scientists, said Charlie Henry, a NOAA environmental scientist.

The loop moves based on the shifting winds and other environmental factors, so even though the oil is leaking continuously it may be in the current one day, and out the next. And the slick itself has defied scientists’ efforts to track it and predict its path. Instead, it has repeatedly advanced and retreated, an ominous, shape-shifting mass in the Gulf, with vast underwater lobes extending outward.

Even farther south, U.S. officials were talking to Cuba about how to respond to the spill should it reach the island’s northern coast, a U.S. State Department spokesman said.

Florida’s state meteorologist said it will be at least another seven days before the oil reaches waters west of the Keys, and state officials sought to reassure visitors that its beaches are still clean and safe.

Tar balls found earlier in the Florida Keys were not from the spill, the Coast Guard said yesterday. Still, at least six million gallons have already poured into the Gulf off Louisiana since the rig explosion that killed 11 workers and led to the spill, the worst U.S. environmental disaster in decades. The Exxon Valdez tanker spilled 11 million gallons (41.6 million liters) in Alaska in 1989.

Rep. Edward J. Markey, D-Mass., said in a news release that BP complied with his request that a live feed of the oil spill be made publicly available on the Web. Markey said it would start Wednesday night on his website.

U.S. Secretary of the Interior Ken Salazar said the government has access to that live video and scientists will be using it along with satellite imagery to check estimates from early on in the disaster that about 210,000 gallons (nearly 800,000 liters) a day was spewing into the ocean.

“The government will be making its own, independent verification of what those total numbers are,” Salazar said on the CBS “Early Show” today.

BP succeeded in partially siphoning away the leak over the weekend, when it hooked up a mile-long tube to the broken pipe, sending some of the oil to a ship on the surface. And the company said yesterday it hopes to begin shooting a mixture known as drilling mud into the blown-out well by Sunday.

The “top kill” method involves directing heavy mud into crippled equipment on top of the well, then aiming cement at it to permanently keep down the oil. Even if it works, it could take several weeks to complete.

If it fails, BP is considering a “junk shot,” which involves shooting knotted rope, pieces of tires and golf balls into the blowout preventer. Crews hope they will lodge into the nooks and crannies of the device to plug it.

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