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Gulf States Brace as Oil Slick Reaches Fragile Coastal Wetlands

April 30, 2010 at 12:00 AM EDT
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High winds and waves pushed oil from the massive slick in the Gulf of Mexico ashore in Louisiana, threatening sensitive coastal wildlife and commercial fisheries. Tom Bearden reports from Louisiana on efforts to mitigate the environmental damage.
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JEFFREY BROWN: Louisiana braced today for disaster, as high winds and waves drove the Gulf of Mexico oil spill toward land, and oily ooze pushed into coastal wetlands.

Tom Bearden begins our coverage from Louisiana.

TOM BEARDEN: The leading edge of the spill appeared as a light sheen of oil lapping onto shore. By morning, ribbons of oil had already reached some of the Bayou State’s most sensitive areas, teeming with shrimp, oysters and other wildlife.

Charter boat captain William Wall ventured out from South Louisiana today.

WILLIAM WALL, charter boat captain: This area is home to hundreds of species of birds. We have deer. Gosh, you got a little bit of everything. It’s a lot of migratory birds. You have birds that summer here, that stay here. It’s a fragile environment to begin with. And then, when you start throwing oil it into the mix of everything, its very sad.

TOM BEARDEN: Workers had floated protective booms to shield the sensitive fisheries and nature preserves, but they were no match for choppy seas. And continued attempts to skim the oil or burn it off had to be put on hold because of the rough water.

Weather forecasts predicted six- to seven-foot waves through the weekend. That could push heavier coatings of oil still offshore deep into the bayous and inlets of Southeastern Louisiana. The slick was also expected to brush the Mississippi and Alabama coasts over the weekend, and reach Florida by Monday.

For some along the Gulf, there was an air of resignation.

MAN: It’s a way of life. Things happen. And we just got to learn how to deal with them. You know, the next time, we may be able to prevent something like this.

TOM BEARDEN: In a desperate bid to contain the damage, boats scattered chemical dispersants. But, out on the Gulf, an estimated 200,000 gallons a day kept pumping unabated from the sunken rig that exploded and went down last week. Officials calculated it could take weeks or even months to seal the leak.

If it does take that long, the spill could exceed the 1989 Exxon Valdez tanker accident, which dumped 11 million gallons of oil into Alaska’s Prince William Sound. BP, the operator of the sunken rig in the Gulf, was also running the cleanup and containment effort, under the supervision of the Coast Guard.

DOUG SUTTLES, COO, Global Exploration, BP: We have so far mounted the largest response effort ever done in the world. We have utilized every technology available. We have applied every resource requested. We continue to try to stop the source of flow.

We continue to develop new options, both to address the continued flow of oil at the seabed, but also to minimize the impact to the environment. We welcome every new idea and every — every offer of support, both from state government and federal government.

TOM BEARDEN: But Louisiana Governor Bobby Jindal criticized that effort today.

GOV. BOBBY JINDAL Louisiana: I’m certainly worried that the booms, as currently deployed, are not effective. The areas that will be impacted first by this oil spoil, therefore, are critical and fragile coastal sites.

I do have concerns. I have shared these concerns that BP’s current resources are not adequate to meet the three challenges we face. I have urged them to seek even more help from the federal government and from others.

The three challenges we face are stopping the leak, protecting our coast, preparation for a swift cleanup of our impacted areas.

TOM BEARDEN: Members of the Obama Cabinet also arrived in Louisiana today to manage the worsening crisis.

JANET NAPOLITANO, U.S. homeland security secretary: We will make sure and making sure that that response is there, the response is strong, it’s coordinated, and it’s designed to minimize the harm to our coastal lands.

And we will work to make sure that British Petroleum meets its financial obligations, an obligation it undertook in exchange for the ability to — to undertake this drilling.

TOM BEARDEN: Here in Venice, Louisiana, people are extremely concerned about the immediate impact of the spill on fishing, tourism, and the environment in general. But, all along the Gulf Coast, people are beginning to ask whether it makes sense to continue expanding drilling in the gulf of Mexico.

Just a month ago, President Obama agreed to allow more drilling. Today, he said any new offshore projects will have to wait while the Gulf disaster is investigated and until safeguards are in place to prevent a reoccurrence.

U.S. PRESIDENT BARACK OBAMA: I continue to believe that domestic oil production is an important part of our overall strategy for energy security. But I have always said it must be done responsibly for the safety of our workers and our environment. The local economies and livelihoods of the people of the Gulf Coast, as well as the ecology of the region, are at stake.

TOM BEARDEN: In Florida, Governor Charlie Crist declared a state of emergency for the Panhandle. And Senator Bill Nelson said federal and local officials who had pushed for offshore drilling before may now reconsider.

SEN. BILL NELSON, D-Fla.: This disaster and potential mega-disaster is going to pretty well determine the outcome of those officials’ feelings and statements for the future.

TOM BEARDEN: BP promised today to compensate all who present legitimate claims for damages. And the Louisiana charter captain, William Wall, said, that has to happen.

WILLIAM WALL: Ultimately, someone is going to have to be held responsible. You know, we allow them to drill off our coastlines, and they should — they’re responsible for this. You know, they did this in our backyard. We didn’t ask for this. You know, they should be — they should be responsible. They should be held accountable for it and responsible.

TOM BEARDEN: In the meantime, the first pictures of oiled birds emerged, and volunteers began arriving in Louisiana to help clean birds and beaches.

JEFFREY BROWN: And, for more from the coast, I spoke with Tom a short time ago from Venice, Louisiana.

So, Tom, give us a little bit more sense of the atmosphere down there. The people you’re talking to, how worried are they, how fearful, or even how hopeful they can prevent the worst?

TOM BEARDEN: Well, people are very fearful and very, very worried.

As we told you yesterday, their worst fear has been realized, that the oil slick has come ashore. And the real concern now is how far up into these estuaries, where the fish breed and where the oysters grow, this oil will reach.

There is concern that the fisheries will be damaged literally for years. And, if that is the case, a lot of people who own charter fishing boats and who own — who are fisherman and shrimpers, they will simply be out of business.

JEFFREY BROWN: Yes, you talk about fisheries. This is an area where two main industries, I guess, the fisheries and the oil business, and they are both affected here.

TOM BEARDEN: That’s correct. And there’s also the tourism business with the charter boat operators. We spoke with one charter boat operator who has already lost several thousands of dollars of business just in the last couple of days, because fishermen don’t want to go out on — and pay a lot of money for a charter boat and fish in an oil-filled Gulf of Mexico.

JEFFREY BROWN: And, of course, this also is an area that was hit hard by Katrina, which must — which must still be fresh in people’s minds.

TOM BEARDEN: The town of Venice was completely destroyed by Hurricane Katrina. In fact, just down the way here, you can see a couple of fishing boats that were washed up into the trees, and they are still there. They are abandoned.

There are many unrepaired buildings in this area that you can see just by driving around.

JEFFREY BROWN: And so what are you expecting over the weekend, Tom? What are you hearing from people? What are they going to be doing?

TOM BEARDEN: Well, the effort to contain the spill is supposed to ramp up dramatically. The Defense Department is sending in more personnel.

The Louisiana National Guard has been activated to provide more manpower, to provide trucks to move absorbent materials for disposal. The key question is the weather. And, as you can probably see, the wind is blowing. That’s — the Gulf is out there. The wind is blowing this way, and that is what is pushing the oil this way.

JEFFREY BROWN: All right, Tom Bearden in Venice, Louisiana, thanks again.

TOM BEARDEN: My pleasure.

JEFFREY BROWN: As we heard, neither the government nor BP has been able to slow the spill, and worries over its spread have only grown in the past 24 hours.