Heavy oil reaches Louisiana marshland; tar balls found in Key West

Cleanup and containment efforts continue at the Gulf of Mexico site of the oil spill following the Deepwater Horizon explosion.
By David A. Fahrenthold and Joel Achenbach
Washington Post Staff Writer
Wednesday, May 19, 2010

VENICE, LA. -- A tide of sludgy oil has begun washing into the fringes of Louisiana's coastal marshes, officials said Tuesday, as BP continued to siphon some of the oil gushing from a damaged well on the gulf floor but remained days away from trying to cap the leak.

Interior Secretary Ken Salazar told Senate committees Tuesday that the company would attempt a "dynamic kill" of the oil well Saturday. That procedure involves pumping thick mud into the well in hopes of blocking the oil.

And hundreds of miles from the Louisiana coast, there was a worrisome discovery: Tar balls, sticky clumps of decayed oil, were found Monday in Key West, Fla. Officials said they were being tested to determine whether they came from the leaking BP well.

But the most ominous news came from south Louisiana, where the Mississippi Delta peters out into the Gulf of Mexico. There, instead of the tar balls that had previously washed ashore from the spill, thick, brown oil was infiltrating the edges of the marshes.

"If I had been standing up, I would have fell to my knees," said Billy Nungesser, president of Plaquemines Parish, La., about the moment that he heard the news. Nungesser, whose parish follows the Mississippi out to sea, said the oil had been spotted at places called South Pass and Pass-a-Loutre. "It's our greatest fear."

If these marshes are destroyed by oil, it could mean huge losses for the area's seafood industry and a reduction in Louisiana's already skimpy shield against a hurricane storm surge. "We're finished. We're out of business" if that happens, Nungesser said.

This news was not a huge surprise: For days, the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration had predicted that thick oil might make landfall near here. These marshes are the closest land to the spot where the Deepwater Horizon offshore drilling rig sank April 22.

But Louisiana officials said the oil's arrival underscored the need for their radical-sounding solution: the construction of a chain of small offshore islands to block the oil from the coast.

"This is the first time we've seen this much heavy oil this far into our wetlands," Louisiana Gov. Bobby Jindal (R) said at a news conference here in Venice, the last town before the coastal marshes begin. "We know there's a lot more heavy oil behind it that hasn't made it to shore yet."

Also Tuesday, BP said it was slowly increasing the amount of oil it was siphoning away from the leaking well, using a tube inserted into a broken-off pipe Sunday. BP said it was removing 2,000 barrels of oil a day from the leak, up from 1,000.

It's not clear how much of the spilling oil that represents: Officials had first estimated the leak at 5,000 barrels a day, but outside experts have said it appears much larger than that. Video of the leak, released by U.S. Sens. Bill Nelson (D-Fla.) and Barbara Boxer (D-Calif.), showed oil continuing to billow out of the leaking pipe, even with the siphon pipe inserted into it.

The company's plan to stop the leak involves pumping heavy "kill mud" at 40 barrels a minute into openings in the blowout preventer, a mechanism that surrounds the drill pipe. If the influx of mud does not clog the drill pipe, a BP spokesman said, the company could still use a "junk shot" later -- pumping larger debris such as golf balls and pieces of tire into the mechanism.

Mark Proegler, a BP spokesman, said the company had not used the mud-pumping technique earlier because it had to first gather data about pressures inside the blowout preventer. "It takes a while to gather the information we need," he said.

So far, officials said, the oil has not caused catastrophic damage on shore: Just 23 "oiled" birds have been found dead, in contrast to the tens of thousands killed by the Exxon Valdez spill in 1989. But scientists are worried about vast areas of oil floating underwater, unseen.

That worry was heightened by Monday's discovery in Key West. If the tar balls found there are determined to have come from the BP leak, that could mean some oil has made its way into the Inner Loop currents of the Gulf Stream. NOAA Administrator Jane Lubchenco said that oil swept up in the current might take eight to 10 days to reach the Florida Keys.

Exxon Mobil, meanwhile, said it had delayed plans to start drilling an exploration well this week in the Gulf of Mexico.

Fahrenthold reported from Washington. Staff writers Juliet Eilperin and Steve Mufson also contributed to this report.

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