U.S. Military Mobilized To Assist Oil Spill Cleanup

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The U.S. military has been called in to assist in the cleanup of the oil spill in the Gulf of Mexico. The federal government has declared the disaster a "spill of national significance" — meaning officials can tap resources nationwide to combat the oil slick. The spill is expected to reach the Mississippi River Delta in Louisiana as soon as Friday.

MELISSA BLOCK, host:

This is ALL THINGS CONSIDERED from NPR News. I'm Melissa Block.

MICHELE NORRIS, host:

And I'm Michele Norris.

The federal government has declared the oil spill on the Gulf of Mexico a spill of national significance. President Obama pledged to use every single resource at his disposal to deal with the disaster. And that includes the U.S. military. Today, the Navy sent equipment to help with the cleanup.

As NPR's Wade Goodwyn reports, the oil slick could reach the Mississippi River Delta and Louisiana as soon as tomorrow.

WADE GOODWYN: It's not been a happy 24 hours for BP Global. After BP found another leak in the riser pipe yesterday, the Coast Guard revised its estimate of how much oil is leaking from 1,000 barrels every 24 hours to 5,000 barrels a day. BP spokesman John Curry says it doesn't really matter what the numbers are, the slick is what it is and corralling it is the important thing.

Mr. JOHN CURRY (Spokesman, BP Global): We can't physically go down and put a meter on that, on the leak to measure how much is flowing. So it's all just a guess, it's all an estimate. And you know, the different estimates don't change our response. And we're not going to stop until we get this done.

GOODWYN: The oil giant, which is spending $6 million a day on the cleanup effort, asked the federal government for financial assistance in combating the spill. President Obama quickly gave a thumbs down on that proposal. But addressing a group of teachers in the Rose Garden, the president did promise significant federal assistance is on its way.

President BARACK OBAMA: Earlier this week, Secretaries Napolitano and Salazar laid out the next steps for a thorough investigation into what precipitated this event. I am sure there may be a few science teachers here whove been following this issue closely with their classes. And if you guys have any suggestions, please let us know.

(Soundbite of laughter)

GOODWYN: The slick is not one large blob. It is made up of many finger-like streamers extending for miles. And with the wind shifting from north to south, the slick is moving toward the coast of Louisiana. It's expected to make contact with the ecologically fragile Mississippi River Delta as soon as tomorrow afternoon or evening.

Ms. JACKIE SAVITZ (Toxicology Scientist, Oceana): I think the moral to the story is, you got to make sure your safety and cleanup expertise keeps up with your technological expertise, and we have not done that.

GOODWYN: Jackie Savitz is a toxicology scientist with the environmental group Oceana. Savitz says that at the current flow rate, the spill will reach the 11 million gallon mark of the Exxon Valdez spill in 50 days. The Gulf holds several endangered and threatened species, including four species of endangered sea turtle. In addition, dolphins, porpoises, whales, oysters, game fish - the list of the threatened goes on and on.

Ms. SAVITZ: This is one of only two spawning areas for blue fin tuna in the world. If larva are exposed, there's a good chance they won't survive, or their survival will be reduced because of the oil spill. For the coastal communities of Louisiana, Mississippi, Alabama and Florida, this is an anxious time.

GOODWYN: Tony Kennon, the mayor of the city of Orange Beach, Alabama says he can hardly bring himself to contemplate the impact of a month's long spill.

Mr. TONY KENNON (Mayor, Orange Beach, Alabama): If I go off of that, then, you know, hey, I'd probably need to go in my office and lock the door for the rest of the week.

GOODWYN: Kennon is not opposed to offshore drilling, but he says he's not happy with BP and their failed blowout preventer sitting uselessly on the floor of the Gulf.

Mr. KENNON: You got to question, and I guess the only thing just from a common sense is if your blowout device fails, where was plan B, you know? You got to know that eventually there's going to be some type of situation like this. Why are we just now trying to figure out a plan B? I think that bothers me more than anything right now.

GOODWYN: The weather along the coast is stunning right now.

Mr. KENNON: Right now the water is pretty, the weather is perfect, the beaches are as white as they've ever been, the whitest in the world. So come now, 'cause right now everything's great.

GOODWYN: Mayor Kennon adds that the sooner you come to visit his coastal paradise, the better.

Wade Goodwyn, NPR News, New Orleans.

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