, VENICE, May 2 – High winds and rough seas hampered efforts Saturday to prevent a giant oil slick from reaching US shores and wreaking enormous environmental and economic damage on the fragile Louisiana coast.
President Barack Obama prepared for a Sunday morning visit to the stricken region in the Gulf of Mexico, a prime spawning ground for fish, shrimp and crabs, home to oyster beds and a major stop for migratory birds.
The leading edge of the slick may just be sheen, but Louisiana governor Bobby Jindal warned that the millions of gallons of crude being driven into shore by inopportune southeasterly winds formed a potential catastrophe.
"This oil spill threatens not only our wetlands and our fisheries, but also our way of life," Jindal told reporters. "They originally thought we would see heavier oil hitting us today. They\’ve pushed that back until tomorrow."
Environmentalists said it could take decades for the maze of marshes — more than 40 percent of America\’s ecologically fragile wetlands — to recover if waves simply wash the oil over miles of boom set up to protect the coast.
"The surface area is huge," said Mark Floegel, a researcher with Greenpeace. "There probably isn\’t enough boom in the world to protect what needs to be protected."
Engineers are racing against time to shut off the flow of oil from a ruptured well some 50 miles (80 kilometers) off the coast but are getting nowhere fast as more than 200,000 gallons of crude spews into the sea each day.
Commandant Admiral Thad Allen of the US Coast Guard, newly appointed by Obama to spearhead the government response to the burgeoning disaster, admitted the adverse weather conditions meant a major shore impact was inevitable.
"There\’s enough oil out there, I think it\’s logical to assume that it will impact the shoreline. The question is when and where," he told reporters.
The White House said Obama would travel to the Gulf on Sunday morning to survey efforts to contain the spill.
Miami University researcher Hans Gruber said satellite images of the slick on Friday showed it was three time bigger than estimated, covering an area of 3,500 square miles (9,000 square kilometers), similar in size to Puerto Rico.
At the current estimated rate of leakage, it would take less than eight weeks for the spill to surpass the 11 million gallons of oil that poured from the grounded Exxon Valdez tanker in Alaska in 1989.
Safety fears over the oil slick led operators of two natural gas platforms to halt production and evacuate workers from one of their sites in the Gulf of Mexico.
But Commandant Admiral Allen stressed that operations in the region, which accounts for a major proportion of US oil and gas production, had not been seriously affected by the spill.
So far, the disaster has prompted Louisiana, Florida, Alabama and Mississippi to declare states of emergency. Louisiana closed shrimping grounds and oyster beds as the slick approached.
Windy weather complicated efforts to set out protective boom material aimed at stopping the slick.
"It\’s high wind. It\’s high waves. It\’s difficult conditions," Tom McKenzie, spokesman for the US Fish and Wildlife Service, told AFP
There has also been political fallout as the White House put new domestic offshore oil drilling on hold until the disaster has been fully investigated.
British energy giant BP, which has been named in a slew of lawsuits, has pledged to take "full responsibility" and said it would pay for "legitimate claims" stemming from the disaster.
BP has been working on three main fronts to try to stop the oil flow streaming from the wreckage of the Deepwater Horizon rig, which sank on April 22, two days after a massive explosion that killed 11 workers.
It has six underwater submarines trying to activate a 450-tonne blowout preventer that could turn off the supply. It also began drilling a relief well that would divert the flow of oil.
As the first method appears not to be working and the second could take up to three months, the third idea could be crucial — building a giant dome containment structure that could cover the leaks and contain the spill.
This could take a month to construct and secure into place and has never been tried before at these depths.