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Oil spreading much farther than thought; Obama returns to Gulf Coast

Cleanup and containment efforts continue at the Gulf of Mexico site of the oil spill following the Deepwater Horizon explosion.

He reiterated his pledge to do everything in his power to stop the leak and repair the economic and environmental damage. With 20,000 workers in the region for the cleanup, he said he would triple that where oil is reaching shore.

"I'm here to tell you that you are not alone, you will not be abandoned, you will not be left behind," he said, flanked by three Gulf Coast governors. "The media may get tired of the story, but we will not. We will be on your side, and we will see this through."

Plumes of oil

In the discovery described Thursday, scientists aboard a University of South Florida research vessel found an area of dissolved oil east of the leak that is about six miles wide and extends down about 3,200 feet, professor David Hollander said. He added that the plume might have stretched more than 20 miles from the site of a leak. It has not reached Florida.

Cowan, the LSU professor, said he did not know how far west the plume he found stretched. His finding underscores concerns about oil moving under the surface, perhaps because of dispersant chemicals that have broken it up into smaller globules. BP officials have played down the possibility of undersea oil plumes.

That would be troubling, because it could mean that the oil would slip past coastal defenses including "containment booms" designed to stop it on the surface. Already, scientists and officials in Louisiana have reported finding thick oil washing ashore despite the presence of floating booms.

The U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service's official count of birds found dead stood at 444, with 63 injured. But local officials in Louisiana say they're seeing evidence in low flyovers of coastal marshes that the toll is worse than that.

"If you fly over, you see dead birds . . . that we never were able to rescue," said Robert Barham, the state's secretary of wildlife and fisheries. He said he saw dozens.

Barham said there is another toll: the eggs and chicks left behind when an "oiled" pelican is taken away to be cleaned. The oiled birds, he said, "can't feed or fly or take care of their young, and even if you catch one . . . you lose the young and the nest, because there's no way to know which nest that bird came off of."

Barham said he was also concerned about dispersants sinking the oil beneath the surface of the water. He said that has led to awful surprises in places like Barataria Bay, where "you can't detect it on the surface, and all of a sudden we'll have oil show up where we never expected it."

He said he had pressed BP for details about the dispersants: "Have not heard even a mumblin' word from them."

A team of Justice Department attorneys remains in Louisiana, where it has been monitoring the oil spill for the past month. The team is not conducting a criminal probe, and law officials said Friday night that it is unclear if the department will take either criminal or civil action.

In Washington, House Speaker Nancy Pelosi said Congress should consider eliminating any cap on the damages a company such as BP might face for harm caused by oil spills. Pelosi had previously voiced support for a proposal under consideration to raise the existing $75 million cap to $10 billion.

"There is a movement afoot in Congress for that. Why have a cap?" Pelosi (D-Calif.) said in an interview on Bloomberg Television's "Political Capital with Al Hunt," to air this weekend.

Divided on Obama

The responsibility faced by BP -- which says it has spent $930 million so far -- was also on the minds of two women who stood, guitars in hand, in a dirt lot on Grand Isle up the road from where Obama spoke. They sang: "Big oil, black gold. Power and money is the price of your soul. Oil drilling is making a killing. But we can change your mind. And it's a race against time."

Josephine Billups, 49, one of the singers, grew up in Louisiana and fished in the Gulf. "My question is, can BP ever repay these people for their lifestyle and culture?" she said.

On the drive into Grand Isle, divided sentiments about Obama were on display. Signs asking "Is it 2012 yet?" hung not far from where people clad in red, white and blue waved American flags.

"That sign says it all right there," Milo Young, 63, referring to a "2012" sign in front of his house next to two other signs: "Obama too little too late" and "Obama clean-up effort F-."

Less than a mile away, four people sat in the back of a pickup hoping to see Obama's motorcade. "I think he's trying," said Beverly Mallett, 74. "But if you see the oil and you know the destruction that might be coming, you can feel the disappointment the people have here. It's their way of life."

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