The United States Tuesday closed off a large chunk of the Gulf of Mexico to fishing as fears a giant oil slick could be swept to Florida's beaches and coral reefs overshadowed progress in stemming the spill.
The cautionary closure, totaling 45,728 square miles (118,530 kilometers) -- around 19 percent of the Gulf's federal waters -- was announced as politicians in Washington raged over the apparent lax safety standards enforcement and grilled government officials over what went wrong.
|Oil coats the rocks of a jetti at the mouth of the Mississippi River on May 17, south of Venice, Louisiana.|
The chief of the US agency monitoring the spill warned that the "unprecedented and dynamic" slick was on course to sweep along the region's coastline.
"The proximity of the southeast tendril of oil to the loop current indicates that oil is increasingly likely to become entrained in the loop current if it is not already," Jane Lubchenco, head of the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration (NOAA), told a press conference.
"When that occurs oil could reach the Florida Strait in eight to 10 days," she said, as experts analyzed at least 20 tar stains found on several beaches on Florida's southern Keys to determine if they were from the spill.
US Senator Bill Nelson meanwhile speaking before a congressional hearing on the disaster described the prospect of oil hitting his state of Florida and heading up the US eastern seaboard as his "worst nightmare."
The bleak warnings obscured BP's positive reports Tuesday on progress in its month-long effort to contain the leak: a tube inserted into a gushing oil pipe is now sucking up about 40 percent of the crude, twice as much as a day earlier.
The company said its "riser insertion tube tool" is carrying about 2,000 barrels a day of oil up to the Discoverer Enterprise drill ship on the surface via a mile-long pipe.
BP reckons about 5,000 barrels, or 210,000 gallons, of crude is spewing each day from the wreckage of the Deepwater Horizon rig, although analysis from independent experts suggests the flow rate could be many times that.
In Washington the political firestorm was raging over accounts of lax enforcement of safety standards and other regulation for offshore drilling, with Interior Secretary Ken Salazar pledging to revamp his agency's Minerals and Management Service (MMS) with "more tools, more resources, more independence."
In that effort Salazar also said there was a "need to clean up that house," amid scathing criticism of the body.
Worries over the ecological impact of the huge oil spill, and even the efforts to contain it, are growing with worries focused on the Florida Keys.
With hugely popular tourist beaches and fragile coral reefs around the southern tip of the peninsula, the loop current has the potential to take the economic and environmental impact of the spill to a whole new level.
"I think the threat to South Florida is real and we should get ready," said Igor Kamenkovich, a scientist at the University of Miami. "It's hard to predict but... if it does happen, it is bad news for us."
There are also concerns that huge underwater plumes of crude could be starving the Gulf of oxygen, meaning the slick is having a far greater impact on the marine environment than previously thought.
An expert from the Harte Research Institute for Gulf of Mexico Studies told AFP deepwater spills posed greater risks due to these plumes -- which some experts have warned may be linked to dispersants that stop the oil from rising.
"Normally, in a shallow spill, everything pretty much shoots up to the surface and the impacts are primarily to surface organisms like turtles, dolphins, whales and birds," explained Paul Montagna.
However, "under this really cold, high-pressure environment the oil is getting dispersed through the water column."
Louisiana's Department of Wildlife and Fisheries on Tuesday requested data from BP on the use of dispersants, with agency chief Robert Barham complaining that "little or no substantive data has been provided... concerning the efficacy and risks associated with deep injection of dispersants."
Salazar, in testimony to the Senate Energy and Natural Resources Committee, said he expected BP to attempt a "dynamic kill" to further contain the oil spewing from the well.
"The expectation is that this Saturday or this Sunday the triggers will be pulled for a dynamic kill of the well," he said, explaining this would involve injection of fluids and other materials to stem the flow.
Salazar said the maligned MMS would be reconfigured in order to tighten regulation and promised to work with the White House and lawmakers on broader reforms, based on input from a national commission probing the spill to be named by President Barack Obama.
Congressional hearings have revealed multiple warning signs that were overlooked before the April 20 blast on the Deepwater Horizon rig that killed 11 people and touched off the catastrophe.