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Grim Outlook For Oil Spill; Fishing Ban In Effect

The federal government closed commercial and recreational fishing from Louisiana to parts of the Florida Panhandle on Sunday, as an uncontrolled gusher spewed massive amounts of oil into the Gulf of Mexico and edged ever closer to the Gulf Coast. The environmental disaster is still expected to take at least a week to cut off.

Even that scenario may be too rosy because it depends on a low-tech strategy that has never been attempted before in deep water.

The plan: to lower 74-ton, concrete-and-metal boxes into the Gulf to capture the oil and siphon it to a barge waiting at the surface. Whether that will work for a leak 5,000 feet below the surface is anyone's guess; the method has previously worked only in shallower waters.

If it doesn't, and efforts to activate a shutoff mechanism called a blowout preventer continue to prove fruitless, the oil probably will keep gushing for months until a second well can be dug to cut off the first. Oil giant BP PLC's latest plan will take six to eight days because welders have to assemble the boxes.

President Obama toured the region on Sunday, saying that he would spare no effort in trying to stop what he calls a "massive and potentially unprecedented environmental disaster."

The president has halted any new offshore drilling projects unless rigs have new safeguards to prevent another disaster. On Sunday, he made clear that he was not accepting blame.

"BP is responsible for this leak. BP will be paying the bill," he said, rain dripping from his face in Venice, a Gulf Coast community serving as a staging area for the response.

Satellite images indicate the rust-hued slick tripled in size in just two days, suggesting the oil could be pouring out faster than before. Wildlife, including sea turtles, have been found dead on the shore, but it is too soon to say whether the spill, caused by an April 20 oil rig explosion that killed 11 people, was to blame.

The spill threatens not only the environment but also the region's abundant fishing industry, which Obama called "the heartbeat of the region's economic life." As of now, it appeared little could be done in the short term to stem the oil flow. Obama said the slick was 9 miles off the coast of southeastern Louisiana.

'A Slow Version Of Katrina'

Even if the well is shut off in a week, fishermen and wildlife officials wonder how long it will take for the gulf to recover. Some compare it to the hurricane Louisiana is still recovering from after nearly five years.

"It's like a slow version of Katrina," Venice charter boat captain Bob Kenney said. "My kids will be talking about the effect of this when they're my age."

The National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration said the fishing ban in federal waters begins immediately and will last for at least 10 days. The ban extends between Louisiana state waters at the mouth of the Mississippi River to waters off Florida's Pensacola Bay. NOAA Administrator Jane Lubchenco says scientists are taking samples from the waters near the spill to determine whether there is any danger.

"Balancing economic and health concerns, this order closes just those areas that are affected by oil," Lubchenco said in a statement. "There should be no health risk in seafood currently in the marketplace."

BP PLC chairman Lamar McKay told ABC's <em>This Week</em> that BP officials are working to activate a "blowout preventer" mechanism meant to seal off the geyser of oil.
Tim Sloan
/
AFP/Getty Images
BP PLC chairman Lamar McKay told ABC's This Week that BP officials are working to activate a "blowout preventer" mechanism meant to seal off the geyser of oil.

Fishermen still were out working, however: They have been dropping miles of inflatable, oil-capturing boom around the region's fragile wetlands and prime fishing areas. Bad weather, however, was thwarting much of the work; Alabama Gov. Bob Riley said 80 percent of the booms laid down off his state over the previous three days had broken down.

BP Chief Defends Company's Record

Meanwhile, BP Chairman Lamar McKay on Sunday blamed "a failed piece of equipment" for the spill and defended his company's record.

McKay, appearing on ABC's This Week, rejected allegations that cutbacks on safety measures played a role in the April 20 explosion on the Deepwater Horizon drilling rig, and said his company is throwing every resource it has at plugging the leaks.

"As you can imagine, this is like doing open-heart surgery at 5,000 feet, with -- in the dark, with robot-controlled submarines," McKay said.

The containment boxes being built to stop the leak -- 40 feet tall, 24 feet wide and 14 feet deep -- were not part of the company's original response plan. But they appear to be the best hope for keeping the oil well from gushing for months.

The approach has been used previously only for spills in relatively shallow water. Coast Guard Adm. Thad Allen said engineers are still examining whether the valves and other systems that feed oil to a ship on the surface can withstand the extra pressures of the deep.

"This is a completely new way of dealing with this problem," said Greg Pollock, commissioner of the oil spill prevention and response program at the Texas General Land Office. "Generally speaking, nobody's ever tried anything like this on this scale."

Frustration Grows

The federal government says there are nearly 2,000 people involved in the response effort, with additional resources being mobilized as needed. But NPR's Debbie Elliott, reporting from Orange Beach, Ala., says there's growing frustration that BP and the government have not been aggressive enough in trying to contain the spill at sea.

Zack Carter of the South Bays Community Alliance in Mobile, says communities hit hard by Hurricane Katrina in 2005 were just starting to come back. "Now we're faced with this other pending disaster," he said. "We are asking that the federal government give us a full response this time."

In Pass Christian, Miss., 61-year-old Jimmy Rowell, a third-generation shrimp and oyster fisherman, worked on his boat at the harbor and stared out at the choppy waters.

"It's over for us. If this oil comes ashore, it's just over for us," Rowell said angrily, rubbing his forehead. "Nobody wants no oily shrimp."

The Coast Guard and BP have said that it's nearly impossible to know how much oil has already gushed since the rig exploded and sank off Louisiana's coast 12 days ago. The Guard had estimated the slick to be at least 1.6 million gallons — equivalent to about 2 1/2 Olympic-sized swimming pools. Other experts say they believe far more oil has been released in a spill many fear now may eclipse the 11 million gallons released by the Exxon Valdez.

BP has not said how much oil is beneath the Gulf seabed that Deepwater Horizon was tapping, but a company official, speaking on condition of anonymity because he was not authorized to discuss the volume of reserves, confirmed reports that it was tens of millions of barrels.

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