Ecological calamity grows

Terri Hansen, Today correspondent
5/3/10

GULF COAST, La. – A badly damaged drilling rig that exploded April 20 in the Gulf of Mexico off the coast of Louisiana is spewing an estimated 5,000 barrels of oil a day, with no immediate end in sight.

The growing oil slick is moving toward fragile wetlands, threatening fisheries, wildlife, the environment and businesses along the Gulf Coast.

Officials from Terrebonne and Lafourche Parishes, perched on the edge of the delta in southern Louisiana don’t predict oil from the explosion of the Deepwater Horizon rig owned by oil giant BP will reach their communities, but they’re closely monitoring and preparing for the worst.

The parishes are home to state-recognized tribes United Houma Nation, Pointe-au-Chien Indian Tribe, the Isle de Jean Charles Indian Band of Biloxi-Chitimacha Confederation of Muskogees, and the Bayou Lafourche Band of Biloxi-Chitimacha Confederation of Muskogees.

“We’re to the west of everything so far, but it probably will reach us,” said Albert P. Naquin, chief of the Isle de Jean Charles Band of Biloxi-Chitimachas. “The effects will.”

Naquin, who worked for the oil companies and as a government inspector for 38 years, said, “We’ve never had any problems of this magnitude.”

Nearly 2,000 people are part of a coordinated public-private response effort consisting of BP officials, locals and state and federal officials. They’ve employed more than 100 vessels, and dozens of aircraft, vehicles and offshore drilling units.

“Some of our tribal members may go out Wednesday or Thursday to help in the effort,” Naquin said.

President Barrack Obama was briefed May 2 while touring part of the region for what he called “a massive and potentially unprecedented environmental disaster.”

Oil spill information

  • To report oiled wildlife, please call (866) 557-1401 and leave a message. Messages will be checked hourly.
  • To report oil spill related damage, please call (800) 440-0858.
  • To report oiled shoreline or request volunteer information, please call (866) 448-5816.
  • Data from the Environmental Protection Agency’s first air quality tests in the region indicate no early sign of problems.
  • National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration Fisheries Service has restricted fishing for at least 10 days in the immediate oil spill region. NOAA Administrator Jane Lubchenco said there should be no health risk in seafood currently in the marketplace.
  • For online resources visit the official Deepwater Horizon response site for frequent updates, photos, phone numbers, and the EPA’s established dedicated Web site. These resources will update as necessary.

Louisiana Gov. Bobby Jindal said in a press release May 1 that the state is developing contingency plans to protect Louisiana’s way of life. “We continue to be concerned about BP’s ability to respond to this incident. I want to be very clear on this point – this incident is not just about our coast. It is fundamentally about our way of life in Louisiana.

“Our shrimpers, our fishermen, the coasts that make Louisiana Sportsmen’s Paradise – this all makes up Louisiana and this is our way of life. We have to do absolutely everything we can to protect our land, our businesses and our communities.”

“Some of our members are fishermen, so we have problems as far as being able to make a living,” Naquin said. “The price of fuel’s going to go so high it will affect our fishing boats. On the other hand, if they decide to cut drilling out we have a lot of people who work in shipyards. Any way you look at it, it’s going to affect our livelihoods tremendously. There’s no easy way out.”

Officials from the Obama administration and BP told talk shows over the weekend it may take up to three months to seal off a leaking oil well 5,000 feet below the surface of the Gulf.

“Worst-case scenario: This thing could keep going on for 90 days,” Interior Secretary Ken Salazar said.

BP official Tony Hayward told the “Today Show” May 3 that in a worst case scenario, “we would need to contain this for two to three months whilst a relief well is drilled.”

Salazar and Homeland Security Director Janet Napolitano met with top BP officials in Washington May 3 to discuss the crisis. Napolitano told “Good Morning America” that she would press for assurance that the company has set up a clear process for individuals and communities affected by the spill to file claims.

President Obama said while in Louisiana, “Let me be clear: BP is responsible for this leak. BP will be paying the bill.”

“We are absolutely responsible for the oil, for cleaning it up, and that’s what we intend to do,” Hayward said. BP is attempting to use robotic submarines to seal off the leaks, a process that so far has not succeeded. BP is also building containment domes that can be lowered onto three separate leaks, allowing the oil to be captured and pumped to the surface. The 74-ton steel domes will be in the field within seven to eight days, officials told reporters.

In other efforts to keep the deadly slick from reaching the shoreline, the U.S. Coast Guard set fire to parts of it April 28.

“Creator is checking us out, to see how tough we are,” Naquin said.

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