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Obama Gets Firsthand Look At Spill Devastation

President Obama and LaFourche Parish President Charlotte Randolf look over tar balls that washed up at Louisiana's Fourchon Beach on Friday prior to a briefing on the federal government's response to the Gulf Coast oil spill.
Jim Watson
AFP/Getty Images
President Obama and LaFourche Parish President Charlotte Randolf look over tar balls that washed up at Louisiana's Fourchon Beach on Friday prior to a briefing on the federal government's response to the Gulf Coast oil spill.

President Obama met with the governors of three Gulf Coast states Friday as he visited a contaminated beach in Louisiana to get a firsthand look at the devastation resulting from the Deepwater Horizon disaster.

"Our mission remains the same as it has since this disaster began," he said. "Our response treats this event for what it is -- an assault," he said.

Obama said it was still too early to say whether BP engineers had been successful in their "top kill" approach to plugging the undersea leak that has spewed millions of gallons of oil into the Gulf, causing the worst such spill in U.S. history.


The White House has been keen to show it is out front on the disaster after being criticized for not doing enough.

Echoing remarks he made Thursday, Obama said: "I'm the president, and the buck stops with me."

The president arrived at Fourchon Beach, one of the few sandy stretches on the Louisiana coast. The beach was cordoned off with yellow tape, and the president pointed out small tar balls along the water's edge.

"These are the tar balls that they're talking about," Obama said. "You can actually send out teams to pick up as they wash on shore."

After touring the beach, the president headed to nearby Grand Isle for a formal briefing from Coast Guard Adm. Thad Allen, who is overseeing the federal oil spill response. They were scheduled to meet with the governors of Louisiana, Florida and Alabama.


BP chief operating officer Doug Suttles said Friday the top kill was going basically as planned, though the pumping of heavy mud has stopped and started several times. He said the company has also shot in assorted junk, including metal pieces and rubber balls, to try to counter pressure from the well.

"This thing is moving along," Suttles said. "It'll continue to move along, and we're going to stay at this as long as we need to."

Earlier, Adm. Allen told ABC's Good Morning America on Friday that the top kill's heavy drilling mud injected into the wellhead under high pressure had pushed down the oil and gas coming up at great force from underground — at least temporarily.

"The challenge is going to be to keep enough pressure on the oil flow to put a cement plug in place," he said. "The real question is can we sustain it, and that will be the critical issue going through the next 12 to 18 hours."

BP resumed pumping the drilling mud into the underwater well Friday after an 18-hour delay to assess progress and replenish materials.

BP's chief executive said it could take another day or two to know whether the top kill worked. "At that point, we will know whether we can place cement, and at that point, we will have greater confidence whether the whole thing is going to work," CEO Tony Hayward told CBS' The Early Show.

Hayward reiterated that the well-plugging procedure's chances of success remain at 60 percent to 70 percent, noting, "Nothing has gone wrong so far."

The London-based company has pumped tens of thousands of barrels of drilling mud down into the well since the top kill began. Almost all of that material has ended up on the seafloor — forced out by the massive pressure in the well exerted by onrushing oil and gas.

Hayward said BP engineers had completed a second phase by pumping what he called "loss prevention material" into the failed blowout preventer to form a bridge against which they could pump more heavyweight mud. That part of the operation was completed early Friday and appeared to have been partially successful. BP would go back to pumping more mud later Friday, he said.

"Clearly, I'm as anxious as everyone in America is to get this thing done," Hayward said.

Engineers began injecting mud into the well, 5,000 feet undersea, on Wednesday afternoon in an attempt to plug up the failed blowout preventer and stop the flow of oil, enough of which has gushed out since the April 20 Deepwater Horizon rig explosion to surpass the 1989 Exxon Valdez disaster off Alaska.

Should the top kill fail, BP's next step would be to saw off the riser pipe attached to the top of the blowout preventer and then lower onto it a device called a Lower Marine Riser Package that's designed to capture the flow of oil and gas and direct it to ships on the surface for disposal.

Marine scientists said Thursday that they had spotted a huge previously unseen plume of what they believe is oil, stretching 22 miles from the leaking wellhead northeast toward Mobile Bay, Ala. They fear it could have resulted from using chemical dispersants a mile below the surface to break up the oil.

Obama defended the federal response to the spill Thursday. But he acknowledged that his administration could have done a better job dealing with the spill and that it misjudged the industry's ability to handle a worst-case scenario.

"I take responsibility. It is my job to make sure that everything is done to shut this down," Obama said at a White House news conference, where he announced a series of new restrictions on oil drilling.

BP has spent $930 million so far responding to the Deepwater Horizon disaster, it said in a regulatory filing Friday, including costs for cleanup and prevention work, drilling relief wells, paying grants to Gulf states, damage claims and federal costs. The company says it's too early to quantify other potential costs and liabilities associated with the spill.

Government scientists said this week that the crude has been flowing at a rate 2 1/2 to five times higher than what BP and the Coast Guard previously estimated — making it the nation's worst oil disaster. Two teams of scientists calculated the well has been spewing between 504,000 and more than a million gallons a day.

So far, this spill is not the biggest ever in the Gulf. In 1979, the Ixtoc I drilling rig blew up in Mexican waters, releasing 140 million gallons of oil. However, the Ixtoc accident occurred much farther from shore — nearly 300 miles from the Mexican coast.

NPR's Richard Harris contributed to this report.

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