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

By David A. Fahrenthold and Steven Mufson
Washington Post Staff Writer
Sunday, May 2, 2010; A01

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.

Obama sent several Cabinet members and other top aides to the gulf to coordinate efforts, which now include nearly 2,000 people and 16 agencies. His EPA administrator, Lisa Jackson, and Homeland Security Secretary Janet Napolitano were set to attend Saturday's White House Correspondents' Association dinner but will stay in the gulf instead.

It remained unclear what caused the accident at the Deepwater Horizon. The Interior Department's Minerals Management Service said the rig, which was 130 miles southeast of New Orleans, was inspected 26 times over the past five years and had not received any citations for "incidents of noncompliance." Nor had it received any civil penalties.

Some industry experts have questioned the ability of MMS to regulate the offshore industry when it collects royalties from drilling in federal waters. The maximum fine the agency can levy is $35,000 per day, far less than the lease rates, which can be as high as $1 million a day in deepwater areas. Idling a rig would cost an oil company much more than the fine. MMS said the maximum fine is adjusted every three years against the consumer price index.

Federal officials said Saturday morning that production at two oil and gas platforms in the gulf had been halted, and one evacuated as a "safety measure."

Allen said federal officials were considering a suggestion from Alabama Gov. Robert Riley (R) to increase the controlled flow of rivers leading into Mobile Bay in an attempt to push the oil slick away. Riley, who has taken two aerial tours of the gulf, declared a state of emergency in Alabama on Friday.

While White House officials have urged BP to seek help from the Defense Department, Allen said the military does not have specialized equipment that the oil industry needs, such as underwater remotely controlled vehicles with robotic arms capable of picking up screwdrivers nearly a mile below sea level.

"The pure presence of a Navy ship doesn't add to the response," he said. The Pentagon has provided two C-130 aircraft to help spread chemicals that disperse oil, and the Navy has sent "thousands of feet" of inflatable booms to block oil from reaching shore.

The National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration has estimated that oil could be leaking at a rate of as much as 5,000 barrels a day, but some independent experts using satellite imagery and estimates of the thickness of the slick have calculated that the rate could be five times more.

Allen said the rate made no difference in strategy. "Our focus has to be to stop it at the source," he said.

Even in Boothville, La., near where the land peters out into marsh, the oil was still just a rumor for most people. High waves had kept many boats in the harbor Saturday, so few had had the chance to see the slick firsthand.

"We figure the summer could be gone," said Tommy Mixon, a recreational fisherman from Mississippi, meaning the fishing season. "Who knows when they're going to get it stopped."

Failure to plug the leak could have dire effects in places such as Pass Christian, whose marshes are the nurseries for sea life here.

"If they don't stop the leak, the wind's just going to shove it around, and it's going to paint the whole coastline from Florida to . . . Yucatan," Bosarge said.

On this day, he, his son and one of Roy's friends were taking off the boat's oystering equipment and preparing for a shrimping season that may never begin. He compared the effort to a man who has just had his house destroyed by a tornado going outside to sweep the front walk.

"We're in denial right now. Just trying to keep busy," he said. "Just trying to keep from drinking our sorrows away."

A few yards away, a seafood dealer was selling out of coolers the last remnants of the region's harvest. Michele Nix, of nearby Bay St. Louis, pulled up in a sport-utility vehicle with a Dallas Cowboys license plate. "Y'all got any shrimp?"

They did, the last few. Nix said she comes here to buy shrimp at least twice a month. She thought there'd be a line, because this staple may soon disappear. She searched for a parallel outsiders might understand.

"It's about like . . . milk is gone," she said.

A few yards away from there, officials from the state of Mississippi and the city of Pass Christian (pronounced "Pass Cris-TYAN") were focused on the gulf's most precious commodity now: the floating booms.

They had called as far away as Canada, but located only 400 feet of the 15,000 feet needed to keep the oil out of their harbor. But what they really wanted was something even bigger: 38 miles of boom, to encircle the valuable oyster beds.

On Saturday afternoon, they pleaded for help in a conference call with state officials and BP.

"I wanted to remind BP," state Rep. Diane Peranich said into the phone, "that the second-largest oyster reef in the United States of America is right here."

"Yes, ma'am," was all the BP representative said.

Mufson reported from Washington. Staff writers Michael D. Shear and Juliet Eilperin also contributed to this report.

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