Govt declares national disaster as oil reaches Louisiana coast
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US President Barack Obama is dispatching senior cabinet members, including the heads of homeland security and environmental protection, to assess the situation in the Gulf of Mexico as a BP oil spill reached the shores of Louisiana early on Friday.
Obama said some 1,900 federal response personnel are in the area with 300 boats and aircraft to combat a slick measuring at least 600 square miles (1,500 square kilometers).
"We've laid 217,000 feet of protected boom and there are more on the way," Obama said in Washington.
The president said he asked Interior Secretary Ken Salazar "to conduct a thorough review of this incident and report back to me on 30 days" on precautions required to prevent a recurrence of such a disaster.
The White House said new domestic offshore oil drilling was on hold until the disaster had been fully investigated.
State of emergency
After reports started pouring in that oil had hit the US Gulf Coast Thursday evening, Louisiana Governor Bobby Jindal declared a state of emergency and called for the federal government’s help in averting an environmental disaster.
Local officials from Plaquemines Parish, near the mouth of the Mississippi River, disclosed that oil had indeed reached the fragile coastland on Thursday evening. However, Coast Guard officials waited for a flyover scheduled early on Friday to confirm whether the oil slick had actually touched land.
FRANCE 24’s special envoy at the scene, Nathan King, reported that strong winds toward the coast were moving the slick much more quickly than expected.
“This coastline is gearing up for one of the worst ecological disasters in living memory”, King said from the town of Venice, Louisiana, approximately 100 kilmetres souhtwest of New Orleans.
According to the Times-Picayune, a local newspaper, a pungent fuel smell was wafting over much of the New Orleans area, prompting alarmed residents to jam the Louisiana government phone lines for information.
Economy, wildlife in peril
The worst is still to come according to FRANCE 24’s special envoy, who stressed that experts are still unable to cap the ruptured underwater well.
“The oil continues to pour out at about 5,000 barrels a day….The slick is now the width and the size of Jamaica”, King said.
Local residents fear the oil spill could spell a massive economic disaster. The Gulf Coast region is home to crucial fishing and seafood industries which experts warn could be ruined should authorities fail to prevent the spill from spreading.
Ryan Lambert, who lives in Plaquemines Parish and operates a fishing business, told FRANCE 24 by phone that residents were anxiously waiting for the oil slick.
“We’re exactly where hurricane Katrina hit in 2005”, Lambert said. “Here again it’s going to wipe a lot of industries out. A lot of people are making their living with shrimp, oysters, crabs… And all this will be shut down for quite some time”, said Lambert.
As the front edge of the giant slick washed ashore, environmentalists warned of fragile wetlands ecosystems being devastated by the spill.
According to Allain Bougrain-Dubourg, president of a prominent French animal protection group, Louisiana’s wilderness sanctuary is under imminent threat.
“It could be an ecological catastrophe, because this region is reputed for its biodiversity”, Bougrain-Dubourg told FRANCE 24. “We reckon that about 400 species could be affected: turtles, whales, dolphins, sharks, tuna, birds…. I don’t see how we could possibly save all the animals there”.
Race against time
The US government declared a national disaster Thursday, as President Barack Obama pledged to “use every single available resource” to alleviate the effects of the oil slick. The White House also made clear that petrol giant BP would be responsible for the cost of the clean-up.
BP crews tried a controlled burn on Wednesday of one of the thickest parts of the slick, but such operations were suspended indefinitely as the heavier winds blew in. As a back-up, engineers were constructing a giant dome that could be placed over the leaks to trap the oil, allowing it to be pumped up to container ships on the surface. The operation is expected to take weeks.
In the meantime, oil booms have been placed on 20 nautical miles at the entrance to vital estuary habitats. According to another FRANCE 24 special envoy in Louisiana, Emmanuel Saint Martin, the Federal government is now considering using alternative techniques.
“They can also try to use chemical dispersants underwater to break down the oil”, he explained. “But are these measures going to work? It’s still a mystery, but we’ll get the answer in the next few days”.