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May 24, 2010 7:15 AM by Sharlee Jacobs

Questions and Uncertainty Grow Along with Gulf Spill

BARATARIA BAY, La. (AP) - The Gulf of Mexico oil spill seeped
miles deeper into Louisiana's fragile marshes, making it tougher to
clean up or to rescue wildlife like the brown pelican, as the
biggest uncertainty of all remained: When will BP be able stop the
leak?
With frustration mounting at the global oil giant and at the
government, the Obama administration pressured BP PLC to fix the
gusher finally after several failed ventures in the weeks since an
April 20 oil rig explosion.
Secretary of the Interior Ken Salazar said Sunday he was "not
completely" confident that BP knows what it's doing.
"If we find they're not doing what they're supposed to be
doing, we'll push them out of the way appropriately," Salazar
said.
The White House said the Justice Department has been gathering
information about the oil spill in the Gulf of Mexico.
Press secretary Robert Gibbs didn't say whether the department
has opened a criminal investigation. He would only tell CBS' "Face
the Nation" on Sunday that department representatives have been to
the Gulf as part of the response to the BP oil leak.
Salazar and Secretary of Homeland Security Janet Napolitano were
to lead a Senate delegation to the region Monday to fly over
affected areas.
BP is getting barges and other equipment ready to prepare for a
risky procedure midweek that the company hopes will finally halt
the gusher.
But the "top kill" maneuver, which shoots heavy mud and then
cement into the blown well, has never been tried at 5,000 feet
underwater and BP officials caution they are working on a range of
backup plans.
Even if it works, the damage has been done.
On Sunday, some brown pelicans coated in oil couldn't fly away
on Barataria Bay of the Louisiana coast. All they could do was
hobble. Their usually brown and white feathers were jet black, and
eggs were glazed with rust-colored gunk.
When wildlife officials tried to rescue one of the pelicans, the
birds became spooked. Officials weren't sure whether they would try
again, and 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 because they dive
through the water's surface to feed. They could eat tainted fish
and feed it to their young, and they could die of hypothermia or
drown if their feathers become soaked in oil. Just six months ago,
the birds had been removed from the federal endangered species
list.
With oil pushing at least 12 miles into Louisiana's marshes and
two major pelican rookeries now coated in crude, Louisiana Gov.
Bobby 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," Jindal said.
Jindal, who visited one of the affected pelican nesting grounds
Sunday, 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; 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.
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.
A mile-long tube operating for about a week has siphoned off
more than half a million gallons in the past week, but it began
sucking up oil at a slower rate over the weekend. Even at its best,
the effort did not capture all the oil leaking.
The spill's impact now stretches across 150 miles, from Dauphin
Island, Ala. to Grand Isle, La.
At Barataria Bay, globs of oil 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.
Officials have considered some drastic solutions for cleaning
the oil - like burning or flooding the marshes - but they may have
to sit back and let nature take care of it.
Plants and pelican eggs could wind up trampled by well-meaning
humans. If the marshes are too dry, setting them ablaze could burn
plants to the roots and obliterate the wetlands.
Flooding might help by floating out the oil, but it also could
wash away the natural barriers to flooding from hurricanes and
other disasters - much like hurricanes Katrina and Rita washed away
marshlands in 2005. State and federal officials spent millions
rebuilding the much-needed buffer against tropical storms.
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."

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