No remedy in sight, President Barack Obama on Sunday warned of a "massive and potentially unprecedented environmental disaster" as a badly damaged oil well a mile deep in the Gulf of Mexico spewed a widening and deadly slick toward delicate wetlands and wildlife. He said it could take many days to stop.
The U.S. Gulf Coast is facing the worst environmental threat in a generation, a crisis President Barack Obama called "a massive and potentially unprecedented environmental disaster."
With the slick beginning to lap at the outer shoals of the Louisiana coast and almost two weeks after the oil well explosion in the Gulf of Mexico, Mr. Obama landed in Louisiana to survey the scene and to offer reassurance that the government would take all necessary steps to clean up the disaster. He fiercely defended his administration's work to mitigate the ecological and economic devastation caused by a leaking BP Plc oil well 5,000 feet below the ocean surface - and also pledged that BP would be responsible for footing the cleanup bill.
At the same time, he was blunt about the serious consequences of the spill. "The oil that is still leaking from the well could seriously damage the economy and the environment of our Gulf states and it could extend for a long time," he told reporters in Venice, La.
"It could jeopardize the livelihoods of thousands of Americans who call this place home."
The President's stark assessment of the spill comes as the possible environmental consequences of the disaster, and its impact on the livelihoods of thousands along the Gulf coast, are coming into sharper focus. Already, the oil spill has dealt a major blow to Louisiana's commercial and recreational fishing industry as the U.S. government banned fishing for 10 days from the Mississippi River to the Florida Panhandle due to health concerns.
Pushed by strong winds, the oil could hit Louisiana's protective coastal wetlands and the shores of Mississippi and Alabama in a matter of days, harming hundreds of species and wildlife and ruining the fishing industry, which is worth $2.5-billion (U.S.) a year to the Louisiana economy. The area hardest hit by the spill is the same region only now starting to rebuild itself following the destruction of Hurricane Katrina.
While pledging to "spare no resource" to clean up the spill, the President acknowledged that the deadly slick could take many days to get stopped, during which it would continue to spread. Earlier in the day, Minister of the Interior Secretary Ken Salazar said "the scenario is a very grave scenario."
"You're looking at potentially 90 days before you ultimately get to what is the ultimate solution."
If the robotic submarines fail to seal off the leak, BP will attempt to use three concrete metal boxes to capture the oil and siphon it to a barge on the surface - a method that has previously worked in shallower waters, but never proven to contain a spill 5,000 feet underwater.
But the concrete boxes won't be ready to deploy at least six days. Meanwhile, the direction of the wind will also determine how quickly the oil moves to the shore lines of the Gulf states. Across the shores of Louisiana, orange inflatable booms were being laid out in anticipation of the arrival of oil that's being pushed north by unseasonably strong winds, but those winds were also rendering the booms ineffective.
Thousands of barrels of oil have already poured into the Gulf of Mexico from a rupture caused when the Deepwater Horizon oil rig exploded on April 20 and sank two days later.
The oil spill could spell disaster for many plants and species. The impact of the oil reaching the wetlands and beaches is significant on the migratory birds, which could see their numbers dwindle.
The situation would become even more grave if the oil gets into the Gulf Stream and flows to the beaches of Florida, affecting the tourism industry and ruining countless wildlife.
Mr. Obama, mindful that his critics have accused him of reacting to the oil spill in the same way his predecessor, George W. Bush, did after Hurricane Katrina ravaged the same region, said his administration had been preparing and planning for the worst from day one even as it had "hoped for the best."
It is still too early to measure the long-term impact of the spills. The wetlands of Louisiana have long been disappearing into the Gulf of Mexico, under stress by oil companies, farm runoff and hurricanes.
The healthier marshes on the eastern side of the Mississippi River are better able to cope with an oil slick or at least trap the oil at the edge of the marsh. Denise Reed, a professor in the department of earth and environmental sciences at the University of New Orleans, pointed to the fact that much of the marshland is already in trouble. "They're having other kinds of problems, so whether that limits the ability to deal with something like this is an issue we will have to confront," she said.
The marshes and beaches along the Gulf Coast are home to thousands of birds. Mark LaSalle, director of the Pascagoula River Audubon Centre in Moss Point, Mississippi, said this is the cusp of breeding season.
Oil gushing into the area would not only kill fish, their food source, but could have an impact on this species, he said.
Read the full transcript here