Oil spill threatens Gulf region's ecosystem and fishing, tourism and shipping industries

Oil companies stress one another's failures in a Senate hearing as cleanup and containment efforts continue in the Gulf of Mexico, after the explosion of the Deepwater Horizon oil rig April 20.
By David A. Fahrenthold and Steven Mufson
Washington Post Staff Writer
Sunday, May 2, 2010

PASS CHRISTIAN, MISS. -- In this Gulf Coast fishing town, they spent Saturday awaiting, and dreading, the oil.

The slick from the Deepwater Horizon oil spill was still too far offshore to see or even smell. At least, it didn't smell worse than the harbor's usual mix of boat fuel and bait. But there were rumors: It would come Sunday, first the sheen and then the thick stuff behind it. People here had heard that just to the west, fishermen were already pulling up shrimp that smelled like diesel fuel.

On the Royster, a rust-edged fishing boat, Richard Bosarge said that he feared the oil could coat the valuable oyster grounds, which the fishermen here know so intimately they have given them names like "Square Handkerchief" and "Pass Mary Anne." And the oil could poison the huge stocks of shrimp offshore.

"They're out of reach until he's probably my age," Bosarge, 42, said, pointing to his son Roy, who is 15. "Just take a picture and put it in a museum."

It has been 11 days since a BP oil and gas exploration well blew out, setting fire to the drilling rig, which sank, killing 11 people. Ever since, crude oil has been leaking into the Gulf of Mexico, raising the prospects of a historic environmental disaster. Winds from the southeast have nudged the slick northward, where it floated Saturday near the coasts of Louisiana, Alabama and Mississippi as residents waited anxiously for it to arrive.

"Mother Nature gets a vote in this thing, and that's probably the most unpredictable thing we've got," said Adm. Thad Allen, commandant of the U.S. Coast Guard. "There's enough oil out there to impact the shoreline. The real question is when and where."

President Obama plans to visit the area Sunday morning to see any environmental damage for himself and check on the federal response. With the economy already weak, the widening oil slick could add to the region's woes by damaging the fishing, tourism and shipping industries.

The White House is eager to avoid the mistakes made by President George W. Bush, who was seen as too detached from floundering rescue efforts after the much more dire Hurricane Katrina. And that is the problem for Obama right now: Things are not going well in the battle to contain the oil spill.

Allen, who Obama has named "national incident commander" for the spill, said Saturday that no progress had been made in cutting off the flow of oil from the damaged well, which is 5,000 feet below the ocean surface. Allen said weather and choppy seas were hindering efforts to contain the spill by laying out booms or skimming oil off the water, control techniques that have changed little over the past four decades.

Allen said BP has not yet started drilling a relief well to cut off and plug the leaking one, and he reiterated that the new well would take weeks to complete.

That poses political as well as environmental and economic challenges. Obama faces the politically tricky task of appearing in control of the response while avoiding the blame for the situation.

While he repeatedly refers to BP as "the responsible party" under legislation approved in 1990, administration officials have also been striving to demonstrate their attention to the crisis.

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