Venice, La. An oil spill that threatened to eclipse even the Exxon Valdez disaster spread out of control with a faint sheen washing ashore along the Gulf Coast on Thursday night as fishermen rushed to scoop up shrimp and crews spread floating barriers around marshes.
The spill was bigger than imagined — five times more than first estimated — and closer. Faint fingers of oily sheen were reaching the Mississippi River delta, lapping the Louisiana shoreline in long, thin lines.
“I am frightened,” said David Kennedy, of the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration. “This is a very, very big thing. And the efforts that are going to be required to do anything about it … are just mind-boggling.”
The oil slick could become the nation’s worst environmental disaster in decades, threatening hundreds of species of fish, birds and other wildlife along the Gulf Coast, one of the world’s richest seafood grounds. Thicker oil was in waters south and east of the Mississippi delta about five miles offshore.
The leak from the ocean floor proved to be far bigger than initially reported, contributing to a growing sense among many in Louisiana that the government failed them again, just as in Hurricane Katrina. President Barack Obama dispatched Cabinet officials to deal with the crisis.
Cade Thomas, fishing guide in Venice, worried about his livelihood. He said he did not know whether to blame the Coast Guard, the federal government or oil company BP PLC.
The Coast Guard worked with BP, which operated the oil rig that exploded and sank last week, to deploy floating booms, skimmers and chemical dispersants, and set controlled fires to burn the oil off the water’s surface. The company has requested more resources from the Defense Department, especially underwater equipment that might be better than what is commercially available.
Government officials said the blown-out well 40 miles offshore is spewing five times as much oil into the water as originally estimated — about 5,000 barrels, or 200,000 gallons, a day. At that rate, the spill could eclipse the worst oil spill in U.S. history — the 11 million gallons from the grounded tanker Exxon Valdez in Alaska’s Prince William Sound in 1989 — in the three months it could take to drill a relief well and plug the gushing well 5,000 feet underwater on the sea floor.
Ultimately, the spill could grow much larger than the Valdez because Gulf of Mexico wells tap deposits that hold many times more oil than a single tanker.