Efforts to contain oil spill stalled by bad weather
Poor weather continues to hamper efforts to contain the spread of an oil spill in the Gulf of Mexico, as the U.S. government pledged to find out who may be to blame for the ecological disaster.
U.S. Interior Secretary Ken Salazar said the government is determined to find out what exactly happened.
"I am confident that we will get to the bottom of what happened here," Salazar said at a press conference Friday afternoon. "Those responsible will be held accountable."
Salazar's remarks came as President Barack Obama said no new offshore drilling leases would be issued unless they were equipped with updated safeguards.
Meanwhile, as oil began to ooze into Louisiana wetlands, efforts to contain the spill were thwarted by choppy seas.
In addition to containing the slick with surface booms, crews hoped to use controlled burns and skimmer vessels to clear some of the oil. However, rough seas and strong winds snared those efforts.
In Washington, U.S. Coast Guard Rear Adm. Sally Brice-O'Hara defended the efforts of the Coast Guard thus far, saying it has adapted as it became clear that the problem was worse than initially thought.
The Navy sent equipment to the site of the cleanup and the Pentagon cleared two Air Force planes to drop chemicals on the oil spill site.
The slick is more than 200 kilometres long and 112 kilometres wide. It poses a threat to hundreds of species of wildlife that live in wetlands along the coast. It has been called one of the biggest U.S. environmental disasters in decades.
On Friday night, it was revealed that the company operating the rig had previously downplayed the possibility of a spill. In a 52-page environmental assessment, BP wrote that it was "unlikely that an accidental surface or subsurface oil spill would occur from the proposed activities."
Responding to the revelations, BP called the ongoing incident completely unexpected.
"Clearly, the sort of occurrence that we've seen … is clearly unprecedented," BP spokesman David Nicholas told The Associated Press on Friday. "It's something that we have not experienced before."
A growing problem
CNN's Samantha Hayes said earlier forecasts had predicted that the oil could hit the shorelines of several states by the end of the weekend, including Alabama and Mississippi.
"This is a massive spill, we're talking about 100 miles (160 kilometers) wide in some areas," Hayes told CTV News Channel from Venice, La.
The oil is flowing towards shore after the Deepwater Horizon oil rig burst into flames 10 days ago and sank two days later.
The underwater well, which is located 64 kilometers from shore, is now spewing an estimated 5,000 barrels of oil every day. Authorities believe it could take three months to stop the gushing well, which is located 1.5 kilometres below the surface of the Gulf.
Mike Brewer, who lost his oil spill response company in the aftermath of Hurricane Katrina, said it seems that the scale of the disaster may be too much to overcome.
"You're pumping out a massive amount of oil," he said. "There is no way to stop it."
Louisiana Gov. Bobby Jindal declared a state of emergency and asked the U.S. government for permission to call up 6,000 National Guard troops to assist in the clean-up.
An emergency was also declared in the Florida Panhandle by Gov. Charlie Crist.
Speaking at Friday's press conference, U.S. Secretary of Homeland Security Janet Napolitano said the government is urging operator BP to ramp up its response to the spill.
"We will continue to push BP to engage in the strongest possible response," she told reporters. It is time for BP to "supplement" its current response as the oil moves closer to shore, she said.
Controlled burns, wildlife concerns
BP shares have lost about US$25 billion in market value since the April 20 disaster, which may turn out to be the worst U.S. environmental disaster in generations.
Tom McKenzie, a regional spokesperson for the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service, said the agency was focusing on national wildlife refuges on a chain of barrier islands.
He said some 34,000 birds -- gulls, pelicans, roseate spoonbills, egrets, shore birds, terns and blue herons among them -- are most at risk.
McKenzie said the concern is whether the booms will be able to keep the oil away from the wildlife during the weekend.
"The challenge is, are they going to hold up in any kind of serious weather," McKenzie said. "And if there's oil, will the oil overcome the barriers?"
Richard Charter, an energy consultant with Defenders of Wildlife, said that hundreds of species could be affected by the spill.
"There are 10 national and state wildlife refuges in the path of this spill immediately in the near term," he told CTV News Channel Friday night. "They're wildlife refuges for a reason – there are about 400 different species that live in those wetlands."
Anger, frustration in fishing community
Fishing guide Cade Thomas did not know who to blame, but was worried what would happen to his employment after a disaster that has turned out to be worse than originally described.
"They lied to us. They came out and said it was leaking 1,000 barrels when I think they knew it was more. And they weren't proactive," he said.
Brothers Frank and Mitch Jurisich were out on the water hauling in oysters before the oil reached their fishing area.
A family that has relied on oyster-related employment for three generations, the Jurisich brothers filled 100 burlap sacks Thursday.
"This might be out last day," Mitch Jurisich said.
Without fishing, Frank Jurisich said his family "would be lost. This is who we are and what we do."
With files from The Associated Press