Disaster looms as oil slick reaches US coast

VENICE, Louisiana (AFP) – Oil from a giant slick washed ashore in Louisiana Friday, threatening a catastrophe for the US Gulf Coast as the government called a national diasaster and mulled sending in the military.

With up to 200,000 gallons of oil a day spewing into the Gulf of Mexico from a leaking well, the accident stemming from a sunken offshore rig threatens to rival the Exxon Valdez disaster as the worst oil spill in US history.

A boat works to collect oil leaking from the Deepwater Horizon wellhead in the Gulf of Mexico near New Orleans, Louisiana. AFP photo

Strong southeast winds blew the first oily strands of the 600-mile- (1,550-kilometer-) circumference slick directly onto the coastal wetlands of South Pass near the mouth of the Mississippi river late Thursday, Billy Nungesser, president of Plaquemines Parish where oil washed ashore, told AFP.

Hundreds of miles of coastline in Louisiana, Mississippi, Alabama and Florida were under imminent threat.

And with British Petroleum, which leases the wrecked rig, no closer to capping the ruptured well, the White House went into emergency response mode to try and avoid the kind of disaster that Hurricane Katrina brought to the US Gulf Coast in 2005.

"While BP is ultimately responsible for funding the cost of response and clean-up operations, my administration will continue to use every single available resource at our disposal, including potentially the Department of Defense, to address the incident," President Barack Obama said.

The event was deemed a disaster of "national significance," to better coordinate resources, as Louisiana Governor Bobby Jindal meanwhile declared a state of emergency and called for urgent help to prevent vital spawning grounds and fishing communities from pollution on a massive scale.

Despite frantic efforts to stave off an environmental catastrophe, many of those dependent on the region's vital fisheries and nature reserves had already given up hope due to strong onshore squalls forecast for several days to come.

Brent Roy, who charters fishing boats off the coast, said the rough seas through until Saturday would make it nigh on impossible that rescue teams would be able to contain the spill off shore.

"As it gets into the wildlife management area it is going to kill us," he told AFP after returning to the small coastal hub of Venice from the Pass a Loutre nature reserve.

"It's the worst-case scenario for shrimpers, oyster harvesters, crabbers -- all the commercial fisherman," Roy said, referring to Louisiana's 2.4-billion-dollar-a-year fisheries industry.

Two lawsuits against BP so far for negligence, meanwhile, are hinting at what is expected to be a flood of litigation from the disaster.

Jindal listed at least 10 wildlife refuges in Louisiana and Mississippi in the direct path of the oil slick that are likely to be impacted, warning that billions of dollars in coastal restoration projects could be wasted.

Oil was now gushing unabated from near the Deepwater Horizon platform which sank April 22 two days after a huge explosion that killed 11 workers.

Officials revealed late Wednesday that 200,000 gallons per day -- about five times as much oil as previously estimated -- was now pouring from the leaks.

Crews conducted a controlled "trial" burn Wednesday of one of the thickest parts of the slick, but such operations were suspended indefinitely as the heavier winds blew in.

The accident has not disrupted offshore energy operations in the Gulf, which account for 30 percent of all US oil production and 11 percent of domestic gas production.

BP, which leased the rig from a Houston-based contractor Transocean, has been operating 10 robotic submarines in a so far unsuccesful bid to cap the ruptured well on the seabed some 5,000 feet (1,500 meters) below the surface.

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.

At the Gulf well's current estimated rate of leakage, it would take 47 more days for the amount of spilled toxic crude to surpass the 11 million gallons of oil that poured from the grounded Exxon Valdez tanker into Alaska in 1989.

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