As spill grows, oil soaks delicate marshes, birds
BARATARIA BAY, La. (AP) -- As officials approached to survey the damage the Gulf oil spill caused in coastal marshes, some brown pelicans couldn't fly away Sunday. All they could do was hobble.
Several pelicans were coated in oil on Barataria Bay off Louisiana, their usually brown and white feathers now jet black. Pelican eggs were glazed with rust-colored gunk, and new hatchlings and nests were also coated with crude.
It is unclear if the area can even be cleaned, or if the birds can be saved. It is also unknown how much of the Gulf Coast will end up looking the same way because of a well that has spewed untold millions of gallons of oil since an offshore rig exploded more than a month ago.
"As we talk, a total of more than 65 miles of our shoreline now has been oiled," said Louisiana Gov. Bobby Jindal, who announced new efforts to keep the spill from spreading.
A mile-long tube operating for about a week has siphoned off more than half a million gallons in the past week, but it began sucking up oil at a slower rate over the weekend. Even at its best the effort did not capture all the oil leaking, and the next attempt to stanch the flow won't be put into action until at least Tuesday.
With oil pushing at least 12 miles into Louisiana's marshes and two major pelican rookeries now coated in crude, Jindal said the state has begun work on chain of berms, reinforced with containment booms, that would skirt the state's coastline.
Jindal, who visited one of the affected nesting grounds Sunday, said the berms would close the door on oil still pouring from a mile-deep gusher about 50 miles out in the Gulf. The berms would be made with sandbags and sand hauled in; the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers also is considering a broader plan that would use dredging to build sand berms across more of the barrier islands.
At least 6 million gallons of crude have spewed into the Gulf, though some scientists have said they believe the spill already surpasses the 11 million-gallon 1989 Exxon Valdez oil spill off Alaska as the worst in U.S. history.
Obama administration officials continued defending their response while criticizing that of BP PLC, which leased the rig and is responsible for the cleanup. U.S. Interior Secretary Ken Salazar said he is "not completely" confident that BP knows what it's doing.
"If we find they're not doing what they're supposed to be doing, we'll push them out of the way appropriately," Salazar said. But federal officials have acknowledged that BP has expertise that they lack in stopping the deep-water leak.
In Barataria Bay, orange oil had made its way a good 6 inches onto the shore, coating grasses and the nests of brown pelicans in mangrove trees. Just six months ago, the birds had been removed from the federal endangered species list.
The pelicans struggled to clean the crude from their bodies, splashing in the water and preening themselves. One stood at the edge of the island with its wings lifted slightly, its head drooping -- so encrusted in oil it couldn't fly.
Wildlife officials tried to rescue oil-soaked pelicans Sunday, but they suspended their efforts after spooking the birds. They weren't sure whether they would try again. U.S. Fish and Wildlife spokeswoman Stacy Shelton said it is sometimes better to leave the animals alone than to disturb their colony.
Pelicans are especially vulnerable to oil. Not only could they eat tainted fish and feed it to their young, but they could die of hypothermia or drowning if they're soaked in oil.
Globs of oil have soaked through containment booms set up in the area. Plaquemines Parish President Billy Nungesser said BP needed to send more booms. He said it would be up to federal wildlife authorities to decide whether to try to clean the oil that has already washed ashore.
"The question is, will it do more damage because this island is covered with the mess?" Nungesser said.
Officials have considered some drastic solutions for cleaning the oil -- like burning or flooding the marshes -- but they may have to sit back and let nature take care of it.
Plants and pelican eggs could wind up trampled to death by well-meaning humans. If the marshes are too dry, setting them ablaze could burn plants to the roots and obliterate the wetlands.
Flooding might help by floating out the oil, but it also could wash away the natural barriers to flooding from hurricanes and other disasters -- much like hurricanes Katrina and Rita washed away marshlands in 2005. State and federal officials spent millions rebuilding the much-needed buffer against tropical storms.
The spill's impact now stretches across 150 miles, from Dauphin Island, Ala., to Grand Isle, La.
On Sunday, oil reached an 1,150-acre oyster ground leased by Belle Chasse, La., fisherman Dave Cvitanovich. He said cleanup crews were stringing lines of absorbent boom along the surrounding marshes, but that still left large clumps of rust-colored oil floating over his oyster beds. Mature oysters might eventually filter out the crude and become fit for sale, but this year's crop of spate, or young oysters, will perish.
"Those will die in the oil," Cvitanovich said. "It's inevitable."
Each day the spill grows, so does anger with the government and BP. U.S. Environmental Protection Agency chief Lisa P. Jackson was headed Sunday to Louisiana, where she planned to visit with frustrated residents.
Salazar and Secretary of Homeland Security Janet Napolitano were to lead a Senate delegation to the region today to fly over affected areas and keep an eye on the response.
The leak may not be completely stopped until a relief well is dug, a project that could take months. Another effort that BP said will begin Tuesday at the earliest will shoot heavy mud, and then cement, into the blown well, but that method has never been attempted before in mile-deep water and engineers are not sure it will work.
The only thing that has kept leaking oil out of the Gulf so far is the mile-long tube siphoning oil from the well to a ship. BP spokesman John Curry told The Associated Press on Sunday that it siphoned some 57,120 gallons of oil within the past 24 hours, a sharp drop from the 92,400 gallons of oil a day that the device was sucking up on Friday.
The amount BP has collected in the mile-long tube has varied since it was installed last week. The device was siphoning 42,000 gallons of oil a day early that week, but at times Thursday, the siphon was collecting oil at a rate of as much as 210,000 gallons a day.
BP refused to provide day-by-day figures on how much oil the tube was diverting. Curry said the rate is expected to vary widely, in part because it is not just oil but also natural gas that is leaking. On Sunday, for instance, the siphon collected more than 7 million cubic feet of gas.
The head of the Senate's environmental committee, Democrat Barbara Boxer of California, has asked the Justice Department to determine whether BP made false and misleading claims about its ability to prevent a serious oil spill.
White House Press Secretary Robert Gibbs also told CBS' "Face the Nation" on Sunday that Justice Department officials have been to the region gathering information about the spill. However, he wouldn't say whether the department has opened a criminal investigation.
President Barack Obama has named a special independent commission to review what happened. The spill began after the Deepwater Horizon oil rig exploded off the coast of Louisiana on April 20, killing 11 workers; the rig sank two days later.
The 6 million-gallon figure for the spill is based on an initial BP estimate that about 210,000 gallons were spilling out each day. It became obvious the company had been underestimating the leak Thursday, when it started siphoning the oil at a 210,000-gallon-a-day rate while more crude spilled into the water.