Obama visits scene of devastation from oil spill
President Barack Obama headed to Louisiana on Sunday to rally faltering efforts to protect its vulnerable shores from a giant oil slick threatening environmental and economic catastrophe.
Government data showed the thickest part of the rectangular 130-mile by 70-mile slick turned northward by strong southerly winds, sending sheen lapping ashore on the remote Chandeleur Islands.
The chain of uninhabited islets in eastern Louisiana is prime marsh and wildlife area, but officials said confirmation of any impacts would not be known until an overflight was conducted.
“Basically what it’s showing is that the light sheen is impacting the islands in the Chandeleur Sound,” Coast Guard petty officer Matthew Schofield told AFP, interpreting the latest forecast from the NOAA weather agency.
“What we need to do is get an overflight to confirm that we have a light impact. These are just predictions of oil impacts, we have not been able to confirm them.”
An overflight may not be possible for some time as blustery winds and high seas kept planes grounded and forced skimming vessels to abandon missions to mop up the growing slick for a third straight day.
The spill’s first victim was discovered Saturday: a brown northern gannet, struggling for freedom as its long, neck was held firmly in a towel, unaware of how lucky it was to have been found swimming in the sea of oil offshore.
Commandant Admiral Thad Allen of the US Coast Guard, tasked by Obama to spearhead the government response, said response teams were waiting for the right “window of opportunity” to carry out more controlled burns.
A trial burn on a small patch of the oil was conducted last Wednesday but since then the wind has shifted to blow the slick — and toxic smoke from any oil burns — directly towards the coast.
The NOAA forecasts into Monday and Tuesday backed up warnings from Allen that landfall was a matter of when and not if.
“These winds will continue to bring oil towards the shoreline along the Mississippi River Delta, Breton Island, and the Chandeleur Islands,” they said.
The Chandeleur Islands form the easternmost point of Louisiana and are part of the Breton National Wildlife Refuge — the second oldest refuge in the United States and home to countless endangered brown pelican, least tern, and piping plover.
Louisiana accounts for an estimated one-third of the country’s total oyster output, and the Gulf of Mexico are prime spawning waters for fish, shrimp and crabs, as well as a major stop for migratory birds.
Louisiana Governor Bobby Jindal warned Saturday that the southern state’s “way of life” was under threat as fishermen and coastal communities finally back on their feet after 2005’s Hurricane Katrina braced for more pain.
“I guess we’re probably going to end up out of business,” Al Sunseri said of his 134-year-old processing company, P&J Oyster in New Orleans’ historic French Quarter, as he considered the potential impact.
Outside a high school with two other Vietnamese fishermen near Venice, Louisiana where training sessions were being held for those interested in working on the cleanup, 51-year-old John Chem was at his wits’ end.
“Right now we are trying to get some work but too many people are looking for work. I might be homeless, there are too many bills to pay and the bank might take my house.”
Obama was due to arrive in the early afternoon to give the cleanup efforts a much-needed morale boost, but there was little cheer coming from the US authorities.
“You’re looking at potentially 90 days before you ultimately get to what is the ultimate solution here and that’s a relief well,” said Interior Secretary Ken Salazar.
There was, however, a ray of light from BP’s head of US operations, Lamar McKay, who suggested that a giant dome could be deployed as early as next week to try and contain the spill.
The containment dome “has been fabricated. The engineering is being finalized to get that mobilized and deployed. That will probably be in six to eight days we’ll have that deployed,” McKay said.
With relief wells taking three months and the underwater submarines making no progress in activating the blowout preventer on the sea floor, the dome could be all important factor in shutting off the oil.
An estimated 210,000 gallons of crude has been streaming from the wellhead below the Deepwater Horizon rig which sank on April 22, two days after a massive explosion that killed 11 workers.