Oil threatens Louisiana shore

Planet Earth


Birds fly above land in Breton Sound off the coast of Louisiana on
Thursday, while containment booms are in place to try to keep the oil
spill at bay.Birds fly above land in Breton Sound off the coast of Louisiana on Thursday, while containment booms are in place to try to keep the oil spill at bay. (Liz Condo/Associated Press)

Traces of oil from a massive and growing spill in the Gulf of Mexico have reached the coast of Louisiana, which is in a state of emergency to help prevent catastrophic environmental damage.

Faint fingers of oil sheen began lapping at the state's shoreline on Thursday night while thicker oil hovered about eight kilometres offshore. Oil is expected to wash ashore in Mississippi on Saturday before reaching Alabama on Sunday and Florida on Monday.


A boat deploys oil booms along Port East in the Gulf of Mexico,
south of Louisiana , on Thursday.A boat deploys oil booms along Port East in the Gulf of Mexico, south of Louisiana , on Thursday. (Sean Gardner/Reuters)

The oil is gushing from a sub-sea well about 80 kilometres off the coast of Louisiana and 1,500 metres below the water's surface. The leak occurred after a drilling rig exploded on April 20 and then sank.

As of Thursday, an estimated 800,000 litres (5,000 barrels) of sweet crude oil were leaking daily. BP officials say it could take as long as 90 days to stop the leak, meaning as many as 71.5 million litres could ultimately get into the water.

The country's worst oil spill occurred in 1989, when the Exxon Valdez, a massive tanker, smashed into a reef off Alaska's coast and spilled 41.6 million litres in Prince William Sound. In that case, however, there was a finite amount of oil to spill.

Louisiana Gov. Bobby Jindal declared a state of emergency Thursday night, mobilizing the Louisiana National Guard.

The area is teeming with shrimp, oysters and other marine life, helping to make Louisiana's $1.8-billion annual seafood industry the largest in the lower 48 states. More than 1.8 million migratory waterfowl use the Louisiana coastal wetlands as a habitat, with large numbers of neighbouring mink and river otter.

Officials 'frightened'

U.S. Coast Guard crews were patrolling the coastal marshes early Friday morning looking for areas where the oil has flowed in.

"I am frightened," said David Kennedy, acting assistant administrator of the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration's National Ocean Service.

"This is a very, very big thing," Kennedy said. "And the efforts that are going to be required to do anything about it, especially if it continues on, are just mind-boggling."


Oil clumps seabirds' feathers, leaving them without insulation, and when they preen, they swallow it.

Prolonged contact with the skin can cause burns, said Nils Warnock, a spill recovery supervisor with the California Oiled Wildlife Care Network at the University of California.

Oil swallowed by animals can cause anemia, hemorrhaging and other problems, said Jay Holcomb, executive director of the International Bird Rescue Research Center in California.

The U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service was focusing on national wildlife refuges on a chain of barrier islands.

About 34,000 birds have been counted in the national refuges most at risk, said Tom McKenzie, the regional spokesman. Gulls, pelicans, roseate spoonbills, egrets, shore birds, terns and blue herons are in the path of the spill.

Mink and river otter also live in the delta and might eat oiled carcasses.


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