Fears deepen as oil enters the Loop Current
Concerns over the oil's projected movement brought Cuba and the United States together in a rare moment of cooperation.
Thu, May 20, 2010 at 03:19 AM
SPREADING PROBLEM: Sen. Bill Nelson discusses a map that shows the possible track of the oil spill from the Gulf of Mexico once it enters the Loop Current. (Photo: ZUMA Press)
Heavy oil from a massive spill oozed into Louisiana's fragile marshlands Thursday as streams of crude also entered a powerful current that could sweep them to Florida, Cuba and beyond.
"The day that we have all been fearing is upon us today," said Louisiana Gov. Bobby Jindal after surveying some of the thick oil washing into the environmentally important marshlands.
Crude leaking from the giant slick off Louisiana was being dragged toward Florida's popular tourist beaches and fragile coral reefs, threatening a whole new dimension to the unfolding environmental disaster.
Scientists laid out a worst-case scenario in which the oceanic conveyor belt would wash oil ashore in Florida in as little as six days, before carrying it up the East Coast and even into the Gulf Stream.
The grim outlook brought Cuba and the United States together in a rare moment of cooperation as diplomats from the two nations discussed potential risks, as well as the cause of the spill and its projected movement.
Experts warn the potential damage to the region's teeming marine life and fragile coastlines could be enormous.
"The Loop Current is a super-highway carrying babies of a wide array of fishes and other kinds of marine life from their spawning zones to the places where they will ultimately grow up," Environmental Defense Fund chief ocean scientist Doug Rader told AFP.
Nearly a month after the Deepwater Horizon rig exploded on April 20, killing 11 workers, British energy giant BP has failed to stop the leak, although it says it is containing some 40 percent of the oil streaming from the wreckage.
But Jindal said "heavy oil" was now in the marshlands, lapping against reeds and coating animals. "It's already here, but we know more is coming."
The first oiled turtle found
Louisiana biologists said they had rescued an endangered Kemp's Ridley sea turtle with a heavily oiled exterior, the first found so far. Oil samples from the turtle, rescued on Tuesday, were being analyzed to determine whether they came from the spill, officials said.
South of Venice, the seaport where BP has established its response headquarters, oil was seeping at an ever-rapid rate into the marshes.
Shiny tar balls were caught in thickets of reeds where crabs swarmed about, their shells tainted orange by the crude. In some spots, a thick blanket of oil hung at the bottom of the marsh.
Meanwhile, European Space Agency satellites showed oil being pulled into the powerful clockwise-moving Loop Current that joins the Gulf Stream, the northern hemisphere's most important ocean current system.
The National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration (NOAA), the main U.S. agency monitoring the spill, agreed that a small portion of the slick had entered the current "in the form of light to very light sheens."
But it tried to temper fears, saying the oil may never reach Florida and if it does, it "would be highly weathered" with evaporation and chemical dispersants having "significantly" reduced the volume.
Rader warned it was "inevitable" that the cocktail of oil and chemical dispersants would eventually make it to Florida, washing up on beaches on the southeastern U.S. coast.
Cuba's southwestern coast, home to major coral and mangrove systems, as well as a nursery area that supports much of western Caribbean marine wildlife, is also under threat.
Containment efforts continue
BP is continuing its efforts to siphon up as much of the oil as possible via a mile-long suction tube said to be pulling up some 2,000 barrels of crude a day gushing from the fractured rig pipe.
The firm estimates that some 5,000 barrels, or 210,000 gallons, a day of crude is spewing from the wreckage of the Deepwater Horizon rig, although independent experts warn the flow rate could be at least 10 times higher.
BP hopes to stop the noxious flow with a so-called "top kill" operation in about a week, in which heavy drilling fluids would be injected into the well to stem the oil flow, followed by a cement operation to seal it up permanently.
With concerns mounting over lax federal oversight of the offshore oil drilling industry, top US Senate Democrats urged President Barack Obama to order "immediate and enhanced inspections" of drilling in U.S. waters.
"As the Gulf Coast continues to be threatened by the lasting effects of the Deepwater Horizon oil spill disaster, we are deeply concerned that this accident could be repeated elsewhere," they wrote to Obama.
Copyright 2010 AFP American Edition