White House Takes a Bigger Role in the Oil Spill Cleanup

A boat collected crude oil that had leaked from the Deepwater Horizon wellhead in the Gulf of Mexico.
(Photo: Chris Graythen/Getty Images)

New York Times, April 29, 2010
By: Campbell Robertson, Leslie Kaufman and Liz Robbins

NEW ORLEANS — President Obama increased his administration’s role in the cleanup of the vast oil spill in the Gulf of Mexico on Thursday, by positioning the Department of Defense to assist the giant oil company BP in dealing with the spill and by sending three top officials to Louisiana.

In Baton Rouge, Gov. Bobby Jindal declared a state of emergency Thursday afternoon, saying that the oil slick, which has been spreading perilously closer to shore, “threatens the state’s natural resources.”

Janet Napolitano, the Secretary for Homeland Security, said at a White House briefing on Thursday that the oil slick was “a spill of national significance.” That designation meant that federal resources from many regions can be used to combat it.

Ms. Napolitano will be in Louisiana on Friday, along with Interior Secretary Ken Salazar and Lisa Jackson, the head of the Environmental Protection Agency.

“We will continue to push BP to engage in the strongest response possible,” Ms. Napolitano said. “We will continue to oversee those efforts, and add to those efforts where we deem necessary.”

Cleanup efforts, however, suffered a setback on Thursday when sea and wind conditions prevented officials from executing a controlled burn of some of the floating oil, said Rear Adm. Sally Brice O’Hare of the Coast Guard, who also took part in the briefing.

Admiral O’Hare added that the oil slick would probably touch land in the Mississippi Delta region sometime later on Friday.

“We are being very aggressive, and we are prepared for the worst case,” Rear Adm. O’Hare told reporters.

Government officials announced on Wednesday night that the oil spill was worse than they first thought: five times as much oil might be leaking from the well into the Gulf of Mexico as initial estimates suggested. Rear Adm. Mary E. Landry of the Coast Guard said, citing a scientist from the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration, that 5,000 barrels of oil appeared to be leaking each day, not 1,000.

The oil leak resulted from an explosion and fire on April 20 on a drilling rig about 50 miles off the Louisiana coast, which left 11 workers missing and presumed dead. When the rig sank two days later, the riser pipe connecting the rig with the well it was drilling bent, broke and fell 5,000 feet to the sea floor. Oil is now escaping from that pipe at the open end and at two other points, according to Doug Suttles, chief operating officer for exploration and production for BP.

Mr. Suttles and others said on Wednesday that it was difficult to gauge the leakage rate accurately so far below the ocean’s surface. Doug Helton, a fisheries biologist who coordinates oil spill responses for the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration, said the leaks were being gauged mainly by looking at video images from remote-control submarine vehicles. “That takes a practiced eye,” he said Wednesday in an e-mail message, adding that it was “like being able to look at a garden hose and judge how many gallons a minute are being discharged.”

For the oil on the surface, Mr. Helton said, the approach is “to measure the area of the slick, the percent cover, and then estimate the thickness based on some rough color codes.”

The threat of landfall by the slick is prompting consideration of urgent measures to protect coastal wildlife, including using cannons to scare off birds and employing local shrimpers’ boats as makeshift oil skimmers in the shallows, officials said.

By late Wednesday, some 100,000 feet of protective booms have been laid down to protect the shoreline, with 500,000 feet more standing by, said Charlie Henry, an oil spill expert for the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration.

Cleanup crews began on Wednesday evening to conduct what is called in-situ burning, a process that involves corralling a concentrated part of the spill using fireproof booms, moving it to another location and burning it. It has been tested effectively on other spills, but weather and ecological concerns can complicate the procedure.

Such burning also works only when the oil slick is thick enough; it may not be effective for much of this spill, 97 percent of which is estimated to be an oil-water mixture.

[read more; see video, images]

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