JEFFREY BROWN: There was growing desperation along the U.S. Gulf Coast today, after word that an offshore oil spill is much larger than initial estimates. The leading edge moved within three miles of a national wildlife reserve and could begin staining the shore by tonight.
Tom Bearden begins our coverage.
TOM BEARDEN: Those reddish streaks in the water are oil, a massive slick. And the leak may be five times larger than previously believed and closing in on the U.S. Gulf Coast. Late Wednesday, the Coast Guard reported a third leak at the wellhead a mile deep. It was discovered by BP, which operated the offshore rig that exploded and sank at the site last week.
REAR ADMIRAL MARY LANDRY, U.S. coast guard: Specifically, BP has just briefed me on a new location of an additional breach in the riser of the deep underwater well. While the BP believes and we believe an established 1,000-barrel-a-day estimate of what is leaking from the well, NOAA experts believe the output can be as much as 5,000 barrels.
TOM BEARDEN: At first, BP disputed that estimate, but, by this morning, the oil company's explorations chief, Doug Suttles, told ABC News the leak could indeed be that large.
DOUG SUTTLES, COO, Global Exploration, BP: What we can say, based on what's on -- what we're picking up on the surface, it looks like it is more. So, I think something between 1,000 and 5,000 barrels a day is a reasonable estimate.
TOM BEARDEN: At that rate, the well could leak more than four million gallons by the time a relief well can be drilled to ease the pressure feeding the spill.
BP collected and burned off some of the oil yesterday, but there were no new burns today, due to the weather. Instead, boats scrambled to herd oil inside booms and scatter dispersant chemicals to keep the slick from reaching the environmentally fragile coast.
Louisiana declared a state of emergency, with the leading edge of the spill nearing Plaquemines Parish, at the mouth of the Mississippi River. In Washington, federal officials promised more skimmers, booms, and other aid.
Homeland Security Secretary Janet Napolitano said the government is watching BP's work closely.
JANET NAPOLITANO, U.S. homeland security secretary: We will continue to push BP to engage in the strongest response possible. We will continue to oversee their efforts to add to those efforts where we deem necessary, and to ensure, again, that, under the law, that the taxpayers of the United States ultimately are reimbursed for those efforts.
TOM BEARDEN: Later, President Obama promised military help and stepped up inspections of other rigs in the Gulf.
U.S. PRESIDENT BARACK OBAMA: I have ordered the secretaries of interior and homeland security, as well as Administrator Lisa Jackson of the Environmental Protection Agency, to visit the site on Friday to ensure that BP and the entire U.S. government is doing everything possible, not just to respond to this incident, but also to determine its cause. And I have been in contact with all the governors of the states that may be affected by this accident.
TOM BEARDEN: Here in Venice, Louisiana, about two hours south of New Orleans, workers are loading small boats, setting up more booms in all the estuaries in the area.
But Billy Nungesser, the president of Plaquemines Parish, says it isn't happening nearly fast enough. He says, if more booms aren't in place by tonight, the entire fishery is seriously jeopardized.
BILLY NUNGESSER, president, Plaquemines Parish, Louisiana: We loaded out some boom early this morning, and we're waiting for another vessel. The sense of urgency is not there to protect the wetlands that we had hoped for.
We're asking for a line of defense in the marshlands. Tonight, we're going to see 25- to 35-mile-an-hour winds. How far inland -- we know that's coming to shore? I mean, it's obvious. How far inland is it going to come?
TOM BEARDEN: Today, fisherman Joe Norman told us the spill could devastate the economy of the entire region.
JOE NORMAN, fisherman: We were just fixing to open the season up. We were just fixing to get to go back to work and make money. And now they tell us -- we depend on this. And now they're telling us they're fixing to shut us down by the weekend. So, we don't know what to think. We just can't believe it.
TOM BEARDEN: Late yesterday, two commercial fisheries in Louisiana filed a $5 million lawsuit against the rig's owners and operators.
JEFFREY BROWN: Late today, the governor of Louisiana, Bobby Jindal, said the first impact of the oil spill was expected to hit a key wildlife habitat tonight. That was based on weather predictions from the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration.
GOV. BOBBY JINDAL, R-La.: The fact the winds are in the direction they are predicting, the fact the tides are higher than normal are both negative factors as far as Louisiana's coast. The heavier oil is now moving towards us.
You may remember yesterday and previously, they talked about the lighter sheen coming onto Louisiana's coast at first. The winds have actually flipped around. And this is a very layman's description, but, because of the wind, we're now getting some of that heavier oil we're actually expecting to hit our coast, not the lighter sheen they were describing before.
JEFFREY BROWN: A short time ago, I talked more with our Tom Bearden in Venice, Louisiana.
So, Tom, tell us a little bit more about the level of fear and anxiety that you're hearing from people you're talking to.
TOM BEARDEN: There is a considerable amount of both fear and anxiety. The fisherpeople, fisher men and women we talked to today were very concerned that, when this oil slick comes ashore, that there's not adequate protection for all the various estuaries around here.
As one person described it, it's kind of like the hands of a finger jutting out into the ocean. Everyone has a fishery in it. And they're worried there are not enough booms to cover the ends of all those fingers. There's a lot of booming material out there, but, as the oil comes ashore, they are concerned it's going to overtop those booms, go around them, and come in and settle around and destroy the fish that their entire livelihood depends upon. The entire economy of this area depends upon that.
JEFFREY BROWN: Is it a question of getting the material, the booms into place? Is the equipment there, and it's a question of getting into place, or what?
TOM BEARDEN: It's the size of the job, I think, the -- there's a lot of equipment, there's a lot of booms, but there's also thousands of miles of shoreline and lots of lots of places where the oil can infiltrate.
It's an enormous job. In fact, as one Coast Guard representative I spoke with, oh, about an hour ago said, they would like to have booms all the way to Florida. There's no way that's going to happen in the next few days. And -- and, obviously, it's a job that is beyond their capabilities right now. He says they're trying everything they can, but it's just a huge job.
JEFFREY BROWN: It also sounds, though, like you're getting -- you're hearing some anger from people about the level of response, the speed of response.
TOM BEARDEN: No question about that. There's great concern among some people that this is, at least in the early stages, a repeat of the lack of response that occurred in Hurricane Katrina.
The president of Plaquemines Parish says he's very afraid that there's a lack of coordination and leadership being exhibited here, much the same way he saw occurred in Hurricane Katrina, and that things are just not happening fast enough.
JEFFREY BROWN: And the fishermen want to be bale to do more themselves, right, to get out there and set up booms and take actions on their own. They're not being allowed to ?
TOM BEARDEN: They believe that they know these waters better than anybody else. I don't think the Coast Guard would probably dispute that either.
But there's concern that -- among the Coast Guard, at least, that this is an operation that shouldn't risk anybody's life or risk anybody's safety or health. And they're concerned about liability. The fishermen, on the other hand, say, listen, our entire livelihood depends on this. We're expert boatmen. We know these waters better than anybody else. We're perfectly capable of putting these booms out there and protecting what keeps us afloat.
JEFFREY BROWN: And we have just heard late this afternoon from Louisiana's governor, saying they -- they expect it might hit as early as tonight. You -- what do you hear from where you are?
TOM BEARDEN: Well, the original expectation this morning was tomorrow night. But the Plaquemines Parish president, again, said that these booms are -- that he thinks are -- should be in place ought to be in place right now, at least as early as tonight. If they're not, he thinks the fishery is going to be seriously damaged.
The -- you need to understand the geography of this. This is a very long peninsula. It's a very big spill. And it can come ashore over a massive, very long distance, and -- and thwart the efforts that have been made so far.
JEFFREY BROWN: All right, Tom Bearden in Louisiana, thanks so much. Take care. We will talk to you again tomorrow.
TOM BEARDEN: Sure.