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Obama visits with huge oil slick threatening disaster

May 02, 2010

A giant oil slick closed in on the fragile Louisiana coast Sunday after attempts to stop it faltered, threatening an environmental and economic disaster as President Barack Obama arrives to visit.

With Obama expected in the area Sunday morning, windy weather earlier hurt efforts to corral the slick and the US admiral in charge of the response to the spill said it was inevitable oil would reach the coastline.

Louisiana Governor Bobby Jindal warned that the growing oil slick, already one of the largest spills in US history, threatened his state's "way of life."

He said British Petroleum and the Coast Guard still had not provided him with detailed plans on how to protect the coast even though the explosion that prompted the leak at an oil rig in the Gulf of Mexico occurred April 20.

Heavier oil from the leak was expected to hit the coast Sunday, he said.

The chain of events has led to a nightmare scenario for Louisiana only months ahead of the five-year anniversary of Hurricane Katrina.

Fishermen and coastal communities finally back on their feet after the 2005 disaster braced for more pain.

"I guess we're probably going to end up out of business," Al Sunseri said of his 134-year-old processing company, P&J Oyster in New Orleans' historic French Quarter, as he considered the potential impact.

Louisiana accounts for an estimated one-third of the country's total oyster output, and the Gulf of Mexico is prime spawning ground for fish, shrimp and crabs, as well as a major stop for migratory birds.

Cleaning the intricate marshland along Louisiana's coast, a buffer zone for hurricanes that is already quickly eroding, is likely to be a daunting task.

Environmentalists said it could take decades for the maze of marshes -- more than 40 percent of America's ecologically fragile wetlands -- to recover if waves simply wash the oil over miles of boom set up to protect the coast.

"There probably isn't enough boom in the world to protect what needs to be protected," said Mark Floegel, a researcher with Greenpeace.

Engineers are racing against time to shut off the flow of oil from a ruptured well some 50 miles (80 kilometers) off the coast but are getting nowhere fast as more than 200,000 gallons of crude spews into the sea each day.

Commandant Admiral Thad Allen of the US Coast Guard, newly appointed by Obama to spearhead the government response to the burgeoning disaster, admitted the weather conditions meant a major shore impact was inevitable.

"There's enough oil out there, I think it's logical to assume that it will impact the shoreline," he told reporters.

The White House said Obama would travel to the Gulf on Sunday morning to survey efforts to contain the spill.

Miami University researcher Hans Gruber said satellite images of the slick on Friday showed it was three time bigger than estimated, covering an area of 3,500 square miles (9,000 square kilometers), similar in size to Puerto Rico.

At the current estimated rate of leakage, it would take less than eight weeks for the spill to surpass the 11 million gallons of oil that poured from the grounded Exxon Valdez tanker in Alaska in 1989.

Safety fears over the oil slick led operators of two natural gas platforms to halt production and evacuate workers from one of their sites in the Gulf of Mexico.

But Commandant Admiral Allen stressed that operations in the region, which accounts for a major proportion of US oil and gas production, had not been seriously affected by the spill.

So far, the disaster has prompted Louisiana, Florida, Alabama and Mississippi to declare states of emergency. Louisiana closed shrimping grounds and oyster beds as the slick approached.

There has also been political fallout as the White House put new domestic offshore oil drilling on hold until the disaster has been fully investigated.

BP has been working on three main fronts to try to stop the oil flow streaming from the wreckage of the Deepwater Horizon rig, which sank on April 22, two days after a massive explosion that killed 11 workers.

It has six underwater submarines trying to activate a 450-tonne blowout preventer that could turn off the supply. It also began drilling a relief well that would divert the flow of oil.

As the first method appears not to be working and the second could take up to three months, the third idea could be crucial -- building a giant dome containment structure that could cover the leaks and contain the spill.

This could take a month to construct and secure into place and has never been tried before at these depths.

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