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The crew of a Basler BT-67 fixed wing aircraft release oil dispersant over an oil discharge from the mobile offshore drilling unit, Deepwater Horizon, off the shore of Louisiana, in this May 5, 2010 photograph. (Handout/Reuters)
The crew of a Basler BT-67 fixed wing aircraft release oil dispersant over an oil discharge from the mobile offshore drilling unit, Deepwater Horizon, off the shore of Louisiana, in this May 5, 2010 photograph. (Handout/Reuters)

Oil closes in on Louisiana shores as BP scrambles to find solutions Add to ...

As officials coped with the failure of a large dome meant to slow an oil leak in the Gulf of Mexico, forecasts suggested the growing oil slick will move west and closer to the marshes of Louisiana's vulnerable Mississippi River delta.

The shift led to the expanded closure Sunday of fishing waters during what would otherwise be a lucrative month for anglers in the state, the only one now squarely in the slick's path.

It already appears to have reached the southern tip of the state's fragile marsh, as Greenpeace claimed to have found a tar ball, or lump of weathered and largely inert oil, on Sunday in an area known as the south pass of the Mississippi River.

It's no longer 'what if.' It is now happening. Craig Taffaro, president of St. Bernard Parish southeast of New Orleans

With the mounting threat, fishing is now closed in regions west, south and east of the delta, another blow to a generational Louisiana industry that provides about a third of America's seafood. But the closures only amount to 20 per cent of traditional waters.

"More closures is not a good thing, no doubt about that, but the industry will still be able to keep running for a while," said Ewell Smith of the Louisiana Seafood Promotion and Marketing Board, who now fears demand for the product may drop for fear of contamination.

"No product is going to go from those [closed]areas to market," he said. "If we can let people know: our markets are alive and well... The last thing we can afford is to have a complete collapse of our markets."

The state has called the closures precautionary, but said Sunday the "oil has the potential to impact fish and other aquatic life in portions of Louisiana's coastal waters."

Government projections say 210,000 gallons a day continue to leak from a sunken British Petroleum rig into the Gulf, while some academics say the total is much higher. Crews are fighting the slick by spraying chemical dispersants to break apart the oil and send it underwater - an increasingly controversial and untested method that has now been partially suspended - and deploying inflatable barriers to keep it out of small Mississippi River estuaries, described as the "nursery" of the Gulf.

But the slicks continue to spread.

Though they are mostly thin sheen, tar balls have begun to wash up on shores as far as Alabama and oil now threatens a century-old wildlife refuge in Louisiana. Greenpeace's claimed discovery is in an area where the government had earlier said oil may hit, but if confirmed would be the first sighting on those southern marshes.

An ambitious plan to place a dome over one of the remaining two leaks, and funnel much of the leaking oil into waiting ships, hit a snag over the weekend when gases coming up from the seabed froze in the cold, deep water, and jammed up the dome with icicle-like crystals. The dome is now sitting nearby on the sea bed while BP crews figure out how to heat it at a depth of 1,500 metres to prevent the crystals from forming.

"I wouldn't say it's failed yet. I would say that what we attempted to do [Friday]night didn't work," BP chief operating officer Doug Suttles said.

Drilling also continued on a relief well, viewed as the most surefire solution but one that will still take more than two months. Officials are also exploring how they might shoot mud and cement into the leaks, in hopes of sealing them off.

"I must continue to manage expectations on this groundbreaking effort to address this challenge. This dome is no silver bullet to stop the leak, and we continue to work on all fronts," U.S. Coast Guard Rear Admiral Mary Landry said.

Meanwhile, oil continues to edge closer to the vulnerable marshes, leading local municipal leaders to call for help to save their fisheries.

"It's no longer 'what if.' It is now happening," said Craig Taffaro, president of St. Bernard Parish southeast of New Orleans, who is asking for more inflatable protective barriers to keep oil out of the marsh. "It's not just about wetlands and the cleanups. It's about people's lives."

To the south, another municipality suggested this weekend the building of 68 kilometres of fake barrier islands in the Gulf, at a cost of hundreds of millions of dollars. BP was asked to pick up the tab, but has stayed tight-lipped on the idea.

Plaquemines Parish president Billy Nungesser, joined by Louisiana Governor Bobby Jindal, framed the ambitious project as something that could be started within days, and effective within a few months. The artificial islands, filled in around now-eroded natural reefs, would rise two metres above sea level and be meant to permanently block the shoreward progress of any oil and slow the progress of hurricanes.

"What we'd do is basically pump the sand into gaps along our historic island chains," Gov. Jindal said. "What we are proposing is the reestablishment of our coastal barrier shorelines as an important defence against the intrusion of oil."

The lofty plan was expected to be pitched in Washington on Monday.

"So far, people have been very, very supportive of the concept," Gov. Jindal said.

Officials hope to bypass environmental assessments and start dredging work immediately, something environmentalists oppose.

"What they're proposing could be doing environmental harm to try to solve a different environmental problem - the oil spill. And that makes no sense," Greenpeace campaigner Dan Howells said.

The response continues to broaden, with U.S. Interior Secretary Ken Salazar dispatching two top bureaucrats to the region Sunday. Hearings into the cause of the rig's sinking and ensuing leak, co-chaired by Louisiana and the Coast Guard, will begin Tuesday.

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