NPR logo Frustration Grows Over Gulf Oil Spill

Environment

Frustration Grows Over Gulf Oil Spill

An oil-soaked pelican takes flight after Louisiana Fish and Wildlife employees tried to corral him on an island in Barataria Bay, just inside the the coast of Louisiana, on Sunday. The island is home to hundreds of brown pelican nests, as well at terns, gulls and roseate spoonbills. Gerald Herbert/AP hide caption

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Gerald Herbert/AP

An oil-soaked pelican takes flight after Louisiana Fish and Wildlife employees tried to corral him on an island in Barataria Bay, just inside the the coast of Louisiana, on Sunday. The island is home to hundreds of brown pelican nests, as well at terns, gulls and roseate spoonbills.

Gerald Herbert/AP

The Obama administration said Sunday that it has lost patience with BP's efforts to stop the oil spill in the Gulf of Mexico and threatened to take over the operation, though it acknowledged that BP has expertise they lack in stopping the deep-water leak.

After talks at BP headquarters in Houston, Interior Secretary Ken Salazar said he's just about had it with the company, which leased the oil rig that exploded last month and is responsible for the cleanup.

"We are 33 days into this effort, and deadline after deadline has been missed," said Salazar. "If we find they're not doing what they're supposed to be doing," said Salazar, "we'll push them out of the way appropriately."

At least 6 million gallons of crude have spewed into the Gulf, though some scientists have said they believe the spill already surpasses the 11 million gallon 1989 Exxon Valdez oil spill off Alaska as the worst in U.S. history.

In Louisiana, Gov. Bobby Jindal said that BP is falling far short in deploying boats — especially those owned by out-of-work fishermen — to collect oil now coating beaches and wetland areas farther inland. He says conditions are perfect for skimming operations, yet oil continues pouring past barriers he's monitoring.

Jindal said the state has begun work on a chain of berms, reinforced with containment booms, that would skirt the state's coastline.

"As we talk, a total of more than 65 miles of our shoreline now has been oiled," said Jindal.

He said the berms would close the door on oil still pouring from a mile-deep gusher about 50 miles out in the Gulf. The berms would be made with sandbags and sand hauled in; the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers also is considering a broader plan that would use dredging to build sand berms across more of the barrier islands.

Salazar said he is "not completely" confident that BP knows what it's doing. His remarks came as BP said it will be at least Tuesday before engineers can shoot mud into the blown-out well at the bottom of the Gulf, yet another delay in the effort to plug up the break. The company had originally hoped to try the so-called top kill method as early as this weekend.

Earlier in the day, Coast Guard Adm. Thad Allen, who is responsible for the oversight of the month-old spill response, said he, too, is frustrated, and that he understands the discontent among residents who want to know what's next.

"If anybody is frustrated with this response, I would tell them their symptoms are normal, because I'm frustrated, too," said Allen. "Nobody likes to have a feeling that you can't do something about a very big problem."

But Allen said only the private sector has the technical expertise to stop the spill. And he said the government must hold BP accountable. After the 1989 Exxon Valdez tanker spilled 11 million gallons of oil in Alaska, Congress dictated that oil companies be responsible for dealing with major accidents — including paying for all cleanup — with oversight by federal agencies.

Delays, Setbacks Mark Efforts To Halt Spill

BP has tried and failed several times to halt the gusher, and has had some success with a mile-long tube inserted into the leaking well last week. But on Sunday, the company said that method isn't working as effectively as before.

BP spokesman John Curry told The Associated Press that the tube siphoned some 57,120 gallons of oil within the past 24 hours, a sharp drop from the 92,400 gallons of oil a day that the device was sucking up on Friday. However, the company has said the amount of oil siphoned will vary widely from day to day.

On Tuesday, crews plan to shoot heavy mud into a crippled piece of equipment atop the well. Then engineers will direct cement at the well to permanently stop the oil. The method has been tried on land but never 5,000 feet underwater, so scientists and engineers have spent the past week preparing and taking measurements to make sure it will stop the oil that has been spewing into the sea for a month.

"It's taking time to get everything set up," BP spokesman Tom Mueller said. "They're taking their time. It's never been done before. We've got to make sure everything is right."

Engineers are also developing several other plans in case the top kill doesn't work, including an effort to shoot knotted rope, pieces of tire and other material — known as a junk shot — to plug the blowout preventer, which was meant to shut off the oil in case of an accident but did not work.

As Spill Grows, So Does Anger

The spill's impact now stretches across 150 miles, from Dauphin Island, Ala., to Grand Isle, La.

On Sunday, oil reached an 1,150-acre oyster ground leased by Belle Chasse, La., fisherman Dave Cvitanovich. He said cleanup crews were stringing lines of absorbent boom along the surrounding marshes, but that still left large clumps of rust-colored oil floating over his oyster beds. Mature oysters might eventually filter out the crude and become fit for sale, but this year's crop of spate, or young oysters, will perish.

"Those will die in the oil," Cvitanovich said. "It's inevitable."

Each day the spill grows, so does anger with the government and BP. U.S. Environmental Protection Agency chief Lisa P. Jackson was headed Sunday to Louisiana, where she planned to visit with frustrated residents.

Salazar and Secretary of Homeland Security Janet Napolitano were to lead a Senate delegation to the region on Monday to fly over affected areas and keep an eye on the response.

The head of the Senate's environmental committee, Democrat Barbara Boxer of California, has asked the Justice Department to determine whether BP made false and misleading claims about its ability to prevent a serious oil spill.

White House press secretary Robert Gibbs also told CBS' Face the Nation on Sunday that Justice Department officials have been to the region gathering information about the spill. However, he wouldn't say whether the department has opened a criminal investigation.

President Obama has named a special independent commission to review what happened. The spill began after the Deepwater Horizon oil rig exploded off the coast of Louisiana on April 20, killing 11 workers; the rig sank two days later.

Marshes, Wildlife Feeling The Effects

Meanwhile, thick, brown oil continues to wash up into the marshes and onto the beaches of some barrier islands and in some coastal wetlands west of the Mississippi River in southern Louisiana.

And experts say this is only just the beginning.

Much of the massive amount of oil has been floating around in Gulf currents away from shore. Now, residents along the Gulf Coast can expect to see oil continue washing ashore for weeks and months to come.

Crews trying to mop up the oil are finding it difficult to try to clean up the toxic mess, particularly when it gets deep inside of marshes and clings to the tall reeds and grasses.

In Barataria Bay, orange oil had made its way a good 6 inches onto the shore, coating grasses and the nests of brown pelicans in mangrove trees. Just six months ago, the birds had been removed from the federal endangered species list.

The pelicans struggled to clean the crude from their bodies, splashing in the water and preening themselves. One stood at the edge of the island with its wings lifted slightly, its head drooping — so encrusted in oil it couldn't fly.

Wildlife officials tried to rescue oil-soaked pelicans Sunday, but they suspended their efforts after spooking the birds. They weren't sure whether they would try again. U.S. Fish and Wildlife spokeswoman Stacy Shelton said it is sometimes better to leave the animals alone than to disturb their colony.

Pelicans are especially vulnerable to oil. Not only could they eat tainted fish and feed it to their young, but they could die of hypothermia or drowning if they're soaked in oil.

Globs of oil have soaked through containment booms set up in the area. Plaquemines Parish President Billy Nungesser said BP needed to send more booms. He said it would be up to federal wildlife authorities to decide whether to try to clean the oil that has already washed ashore.

"The question is, will it do more damage because this island is covered with the mess?" Nungesser said.