JUDY WOODRUFF: There was new talk today of stopping the huge oil spill in the Gulf of Mexico and covering the damages. But, on the ocean floor, the crude oil kept gushing out of control.
Tom Bearden begins our coverage from Louisiana.
TOM BEARDEN: By today, the spreading slick threatened shoreline from the mouth of the Mississippi River to the Florida Panhandle, but the heaviest oil had yet to make land. The oil company BP said it was using chemical dispersants deep below the surface to break up the oil.
And the Gulf waters themselves, whipped up by continuing strong storms, might be keeping the slick further offshore. But the weather also hampered containment efforts.
MAN: The wind is blowing 35 knots out there. They have got four- to five-foot seas to contend with.
TOM BEARDEN: BP operated, but didn't own the oil rig that exploded two weeks ago. Its CEO said, Tony Hayward, said today it would pay for the cleanup and some of the ripple effects.
TONY HAYWARD, CEO, BP Group: This wasn't our accident. This was a drilling rig operated by another company. It was their people, their systems, their processes. We are responsible, not for the accident, but we are responsible for the oil and for dealing with it and cleaning the situation up.
TOM BEARDEN: In the meantime, BP worked on ways to cap the mile-deep petro geyser on the seafloor. First, it was using underwater robots to cap the smallest of three leaks in the damaged pipe that once led to the sunken rig.
Within a week, plans call for trying to drop three concrete and steel boxes on to the leaking pipe. Weighing 74 tons each, the boxes would contain the oil, allowing it to be piped to the surface. BP was drilling a so-called relief well into the ocean floor to plug the leak, but that plan would take up to three months.
DOUG SUTTLES, COO, Global Exploration, BP: By tomorrow, we hope to resume skimming. And I hope, this week, we can actually use burning as well, and that this deep-sea injection of the dispersant actually is successful, but we need to get some overflight data to confirm that.
TOM BEARDEN: In the meantime, the livelihoods of thousands of fishermen are now officially on hold. The National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration imposed a 10-day closure on 6,800 square miles of federal fishing grounds off four states.
The president visited rain-soaked Venice, Louisiana, yesterday to see firsthand the relief and containment effort. He called the spill a potentially unprecedented environmental disaster.
U.S. PRESIDENT BARACK OBAMA: BP is responsible for this leak. BP will be paying the bill.
But, as president of the United States, I'm going to spare no effort to respond to this crisis for as long as it continues. And we will spare no resource to clean up whatever damage is caused. And while there will be time to fully investigate what happened on that rig and hold responsible parties accountable...
TOM BEARDEN: While the president was speaking in Venice, two hours away, in Hopedale, Louisiana, local fishermen were getting their first opportunity to help prevent that damage.
Raymond Landry catches crab and shrimp.
MAN: We're out of work. We can't go crabbing or anything right now. So, we basically just trying to get out there and save what we can.
TOM BEARDEN: They loaded the heavy booms on to their boats and headed out to the coastal marshes to string them out as a physical barrier against the oil.
Saint Bernard Parish President Craig Taffaro had been lobbying BP hard to put them to work.
CRAIG TAFFARO, president, Saint Bernard Parish, Louisiana: Now that we have gotten ourselves to the table, we have convinced them that these guys who live and breathe out on the waterways and in the marshes, they know what's out there. They know how to address what the -- what the threat is.
TOM BEARDEN: The Hopedale fishermen are working under a verbal agreement with BP, hoping their first paychecks will come quickly. Many are afraid the fisheries will remain closed well beyond the 10-day moratorium, and need the income to feed their families.
On Friday, back in Venice, BP started handing out written contracts to fishermen to lease boats for the containment work.
MAN: I can't make any promises. We can't give jobs to the entire county. We will do the best we can.
TOM BEARDEN: It was a contentious meeting.
MAN: I don't know exactly what I'm liable for. I mean, that's all I'm asking, you know, and I think all these fishermen in here want to know the same thing.
TOM BEARDEN: The contractor boom crews already working out of Venice are trying to protect the coastal islands that are the nesting grounds for hundreds of species of birds. Tens of thousands of feet of the orange barriers have been deployed, but Larry Schweiger of the National Wildlife Federation said booms alone are not sufficient.
LARRY SCHWEIGER, National Wildlife Federation: I think the boom system is -- I would liken it to fighting a huge forest fire with a squirt gun. We have -- we have flown over a lot of the coastline. We have seen very little boom deployment that -- the booms that have been deployed are being overcapped by huge waves, are completely inadequate.
So -- and a lot of them are placed in places where they're not going to be that effective. I think there has not been a strategic plan for boom distribution. There has not been an early deployment of booms. And we don't have enough booms to protect so much of what is at risk today.
TOM BEARDEN: In the longer term, at least one scientist fears the oil could drift past the tip of Florida and contaminate the Gulf Stream.
JUDY WOODRUFF: After Tom filed that report a short time ago, I spoke with him from Venice, Louisiana.
Tom, hello. So, not all fishing in the area has come to a halt. There's still some going on. Is that right?
TOM BEARDEN: Judy, that's right.
The fishermen's association for the state of Louisiana put on out a press release the other day -- yesterday, actually -- that indicated that fishing is still open on the west side of the mouth of the Mississippi, which is actually three-quarters of the whole fishery available to the fishermen in Louisiana.
So, there is a resource there that they can tap and a way to make some money. But we still most of the fishing boats here in port mostly because the weather hasn't been cooperating at all.
JUDY WOODRUFF: And, speaking of the weather, how is that affecting the efforts to clean -- to prevent the oil from -- from reaching the shore and affecting cleanup?
TOM BEARDEN: We have two different stories about that.
As we have been saying for the last couple of days, the winds coming from the southeast are blowing the oil slick toward the coasts of Louisiana, Alabama, and Mississippi, and the Panhandle of Florida. However, when we spoke with the president of the National Wildlife Federation today, he likened the situation with the waves to putting oil and vinegar into a bottle of salad dressing, shaking it up and seeing the oil suspended inside the vinegar.
He says the waves are churning the ocean surface, doing much the same thing, keeping the oil suspended in the water column. And, when that happens, it's not on the surface. Now, when the waves calm down, the oil floats back up to the surface. And, then, that is when it is concentrated. And that's what they're afraid will infect and destroy the marshes.
JUDY WOODRUFF: And, Tom, are you learning anymore about the long-term impact of this oil coming ashore?
TOM BEARDEN: Well, the outlook and the scenarios that are being bandied around now seem to get worse and worse. One observer that we spoke with today said that the offshore winds, which we talked about a minute ago about pushing the oil toward the shore also are occurring on top of higher tides than normal.
They're pushing -- piling the water up against the land. And his concern is that that higher level of water will push the water, the oil-soaked water further into the marshes and the wetlands. And that destroys the vegetation. And you -- when you do that, you not only destroy the fish, but you also destroy what holds the soil together. And the marshes and wetlands simply disappear. They go into the Gulf.
JUDY WOODRUFF: Tom Bearden reporting for us from Louisiana -- thank you, Tom.
TOM BEARDEN: Sure.