May 20, 2010

Oil Reaches Louisiana Marshlands, Threatens Marine Life

After a month of oil spewing into the Gulf of Mexico, crude oil finally spread through fragile U.S. marshlands on Thursday and now threatens Florida.

The explosion of the BP-leased Deepwater Horizon oil rig, which left 11 workers dead, ruptured an underwater well pipe and has been pouring oil into the Gulf since April 20.

British Petroleum said Thursday that a tube was now siphoning away 3,000 barrels of oil a day from the leak.  However, a nightmare scene is unfolding in Louisiana's wetlands.

"The day that we have all been fearing is upon us today," Louisiana Governor Bobby Jindal told AFP Wednesday after seeing thick oil washing into the state's coastal marshlands.

Oil is threatening Florida's popular tourist beaches and fragile coral reefs, as an oceanic current could wash the slick ashore on the state's coastline in as little as six days.

Experts say that oil in the so-called Loop Current could cause tremendous damage to a wide range of marine life.

"The Loop Current is a super-highway carrying babies of a wide array of fishes and other kinds of marine life from their spawning zones to the places where they will ultimately grow up," Environmental Defense Fund chief ocean scientist Doug Rader told AFP.

The damage was already being seen in Louisiana, with Jindal telling reporters that "heavy oil" had entered the marshlands.  "It's already here, but we know more is coming."

Louisiana biologists said they rescued an endangered Kemp's Ridley sea turtle that was covered in oil.  Officials said that oil samples from the turtle rescued Tuesday were being analyzed to determine whether they came from the spill.

The seaport where BP has established its response headquarters is seeing oil seep into the marshes at a rapid pace.

Tar balls were getting caught in the thickets of reeds where crabs swarmed about, their shells painted orange from the oil.  A thick blanket of oil hangs at the bottom of the marsh at some spots.

The National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration said that a small portion of the slick has entered the current "in the form of light to very light sheens."

The agency, which is the main U.S. agency monitoring the spill, tried to temper fears by saying the oil may never reach Florida.  The agency also said that if it does then it "would be highly weathered" with evaporation and chemical dispersants having "significantly" reduced the volume.

Rader said it was "inevitable" that the cocktail of oil and chemical dispersants would eventually make it to Florida, washing up on beaches on the southeastern U.S. coast.

BP said Thursday that it was recovering about 3,000 barrels of crude a day.  The firm said that about 5,000 barrels of crude each day are spilling into the ocean.

BP agreed on Wednesday to a U.S. lawmaker's demand for a live video of the oil leak, which could help scientists better assess the flow's rate.

BP hopes to stop the noxious flow with a "top kill" operation in about a week.  This operation would require heavy drilling fluids to be injected into the well to stem the oil flow, followed by a cement operation to seal it up permanently.

Top U.S. Senate Democrats urged President Barack Obama to order "immediate and enhanced inspections" of drilling in U.S. waters.

"As the Gulf Coast continues to be threatened by the lasting effects of the Deepwater Horizon oil spill disaster, we are deeply concerned that this accident could be repeated elsewhere," they wrote to Obama.


Image Caption: Jason Duke, a geographic information systems coordinator with the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service directs an airboat to search for oil off the coast of South Pass, La. The U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service is providing on-the-ground intelligence on oil sightings and clean up methods to the Unified Area Command located in Robert, La. U.S. Coast Guard photo by Petty Officer 3rd Class Stephen Lehmann.


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