Authorities raced Monday to stem the tide of a disastrous oil slick in the Gulf of Mexico a day after President Barack Obama fiercely defended his response and promised federal help for as long as needed.
In drizzling rain and gusty winds in front of Venice harbor, the hub of the relief effort, Obama on Sunday described the unfolding nightmare offshore as “a massive and potentially unprecedented environmental disaster.”
Rain running down his forehead as he spoke, Obama stressed that BP was fully responsible and must pay for the cleanup, as he acknowledged the pain of Louisianans in a strong presidential display designed to show he was there, side-by-side with the victims of the disaster.
“The oil that is still leaking from the well could seriously damage the economy and the environment of our Gulf states. And it could extend for a long time. It could jeopardize the livelihoods of thousands of Americans who call this place home.”
Louisiana’s 2.4-billion-dollar a year commercial and recreational fishing industry was dealt its first major blow from the oil spill during Obama’s visit when the US government banned activities in some areas for at least 10 days due to health concerns.
“Balancing economic and health concerns, this order closes just those areas that are affected by oil,” said US government weather agency administrator Jane Lubchenco. “There should be no health risk in seafood currently in the marketplace.”
Government data showed the thickest part of the sprawling 130-mile by 70-mile slick has been turned northward by strong southerly winds, sending sheen lapping ashore on the remote Chandeleur Islands.
The chain of uninhabited islets in eastern Louisiana is prime marsh and wildlife area, but officials said confirmation of any oil washing ashore would not be known until overflights could be conducted.
An overflight may not be possible for some time as blustery winds and high seas kept planes grounded and forced skimming vessels to abandon missions to mop up the growing slick for a third straight day.
Oil was also expected to reach the wetlands south of Venice by Monday morning.
Obama, meanwhile, laid the responsibility for the disaster firmly at the door of BP, which owns the leaking well and operated the stricken rig, refusing to countenance any notion his government had dropped the ball.
“So let me be clear. BP is responsible for this leak. BP will be paying the bill,” Obama said, slowing his delivery deliberately to emphasize the two points.
The government had “coordinated an all hands on deck relentless response to this crisis from day one,” he said, vowing to “spare no effort” in the future.
Louisiana Governor Bobby Jindal, who has been scathing of BP’s response, warned on Saturday that his state’s “way of life” is under threat as fishermen and coastal communities struggling back to their feet after 2005′s Hurricane Katrina brace for yet more hardship.
Jindal received a reassuring hug from the president on the rain-drenched New Orleans tarmac before they sped off to Venice, a small fishing village two hours drive south on the imperiled coast.
One of the spill’s first victims was discovered Friday: a brown northern gannet that floated up to a survey crew out in the open sea and was pulled to safety after it hopped onto an outstretched fishing gaff.
Obama’s supposedly morale-boosting visit would provide little consolation to John Chem, one of dozens of local fishermen waiting outside a high school near Venice for training sessions to work on the cleanup.
BP said it would pay volunteers 10 dollars an hour while contractors would pay up to 18 dollars an hour to support shoreline clean-up. Fishermen would also be paid for the use of their boats.
There was, however, a ray of light from BP’s head of US operations, Lamar McKay, who suggested that a giant dome could be deployed as early as next week to try and contain the spill.
With relief wells taking three months and the underwater submarines making no progress in activating the blowout preventer on the sea floor, the dome could be the all-important factor in shutting off the oil.
An estimated 210,000 gallons of crude has been streaming each day from the wellhead below the Deepwater Horizon rig that sank on April 22, two days after a massive explosion that killed 11 workers.