GULFPORT, Miss. — President Barack Obama sent Justice Department investigators and military aircraft to the Gulf of Mexico Friday in response to the growing fear of the environmental damage that a spreading oil slick may cause, but he declined to abandon plans for new offshore drilling because of the unfolding disaster.
As Mississippi officials laid miles of plastic booms to block crude from their state's shores and environmentalists asserted that the spill was far worse than officials have acknowledged, Obama said he'd asked Interior Secretary Ken Salazar to review what went wrong when the Transocean Deepwater Horizon drilling rig exploded in flames April 20 and sank two days later.
Depending on what the review recommends, the president said, "We're going to make sure that any leases going forward have those safeguards," but that, "I continue to believe that domestic oil production is an important part of our overall strategy for energy security" as long as it's done "responsibly."
Along the coast, Friday remained a day for getting ready. Louisiana officials banned fishing and the harvesting of oysters in some waters east of the mouth of the Mississippi River. In Gulfport, Miss., Navy sailors joined Coast Guard personnel loading oil containment booms onto the offshore service vessel John Coghil for deployment between the slick and the shore.
Sign Up and Save
Get six months of free digital access to The Sun News
"What we're doing now is trying to leapfrog ahead of it," said U.S. Coast Guard Chief Warrant Officer 3rd Class Pete Davenport of the Gulf Strike Team from Mobile, Ala. "We're not going to get it all before it gets to the beaches, but with a little luck and help from Mother Nature, we can get it done."
The Air Force also began using two C-130 Hercules cargo planes to drop chemicals over the oil spill in an effort to disperse it. The planes — half the military's fleet of aircraft capable of dropping liquids from the air — came from 910th Airlift Wing at Youngstown, Ohio, which flew similar missions during Hurricane Katrina in 2005 to spray mosquito repellent over devastated communities.
With the slick still offshore, the most active battleground was legal and political, however.
Attorney General Eric Holder announced that he'd sent a team of Justice Department prosecutors to the Gulf Coast to monitor the unfolding disaster and determine whether any laws were broken in the operation of the rig or the response to the disaster.
In addition, the House of Representatives subcommittee on investigations asked Halliburton Energy Services to provide documents on the company's work at the rig and announced that it would hold hearings into the explosion on May 12 and has asked the heads of BP, which leased the drilling rig; Halliburton Energy Services, which was performing drilling services; and the rig's owner, Transocean Ltd., to appear.
State Attorneys General from Alabama, Louisiana, Mississippi and Florida made plans to meet this weekend to explore their legal options.
In Congress, momentum continued to grow Friday for clamping down on offshore exploration.
Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid, D-Nev., said the spill "will undoubtedly require us to re-examine how we extract our nation's offshore energy resources and will have to be taken into consideration with any legislation that proposes to open new areas to development."
Lawmakers from Florida and up the East Coast called on Obama to shelve new lease plans.
"While we appreciate the White House's announcement that no additional offshore drilling will be authorized until a full investigation of the accident is complete, we urge you to go further and reverse your decision on proposed new offshore oil and gas drilling for the outer continental shelf," said a letter from four New Jersey lawmakers, Sens. Robert Menendez and Frank Lautenberg and Reps. Frank Pallone and Rush Holt.
"The best assurances and technology of the oil industry have not been good enough to either prevent or contain this oil spill," said Catherine Wannamaker, a lawyer for the Southern Environmental Law Center. "No known, available technology fully cleans oil from wetlands and marshes that protect Southern coastal communities in storms and shelter valuable wildlife and seafood nurseries."
Attorneys who led the fight against insurance companies after Hurricane Katrina filed a class-action complaint in federal court against multiple defendants, alleging "gross negligence" caused the massive oil spill.
The plaintiffs are seeking compensatory and punitive damages against corporations involved in the operation of the rig: Transocean, BP Plc., Halliburton and Cameron International Corp., the manufacturer of a device designed to prevent such accidents.
There's been no official cause given for the explosion.
The Obama administration appeared determined to show that it had responded quickly to the unfolding disaster in hopes of avoiding the missteps that plagued President George W. Bush's response to Hurricane Katrina.
Obama said that officials had set up five staging areas for shoreline protection and laid 217,000 feet of protective boom. He said 1,900 federal response personnel had been deployed along with more than 300 vessels and aircraft operating around the clock.
White House Press Secretary Robert Gibbs suggested a Gulf Coast visit from Obama may be in the works, but he said no such travel would happen this weekend.
Obama was to stick to plans to speak at a university commencement Saturday in Michigan followed by remarks to the annual White House Correspondents' Association dinner back in Washington.
Gibbs said that whatever Salazar's 30-day review finds could have a bearing on authorization of future oil and gas leases, but that it was too soon to say — and that none of those decisions was to have been made in the next month.
SkyTruth, an environmental group, said it analyzed satellite radar images and concluded that the oil was flowing at a much faster rate than BP and the Coast Guard had estimated. SkyTruth said its conservative calculation was 850,000 gallons per day, well above the official estimate of 210,000 gallons. The government stuck with its official estimate.
At the 210,000-gallon rate, in about 50 days the total spill would surpass the 1989 Exxon Valdez spill in Alaska, when 11 million gallons were dumped into Prince William Sound.
Environmentalists said that even before the oil hits land, damage already has been done. "We are very concerned about the marine mammals in the area," said Doug Helton of the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration.
The National Wildlife Federation reported that more than 400 species of fish, birds and wildlife could be harmed. Salt marshes in Louisiana are breeding areas for the larva stages of marine life, including crabs, shrimp, redfish and menhaden, and also are full of oyster beds.
There are a number of parallels between the 1989 Exxon Valdez oil spill in Alaska's Prince William Sound and the current spill in the Gulf, said Dennis Takahashi-Kelso, who now serves as executive vice president of the Ocean Conservancy but at the time of the spill was the Commissioner of Environmental Conservation in Alaska.
Like Alaska's Prince William Sound, the estuaries of Louisiana are fragile and complex ecosystems home to diverse wildlife as well as valuable commercial fisheries.
In Alaska, though, the oil spill was a shorter event that spurted out large amounts of oil but stopped. The Deepwater Horizon continues to spew oil, which is being dispersed slowly but widely.
While the amount of oil that leaked from the Valdez still dwarfs what's being leaked from the Deepwater Horizon, the immediate human toll was much higher in Louisiana. The 11 lives lost on the oilrig "cast a shadow over this whole spill," Takahashi-Kelso said.
(Fitzhugh, of the Biloxi Sun-Herald, reported from Gulfport and Biloxi, Miss.; Talev reported from Washington. Erika Bolstad, Lesley Clark, David Lightman, Renee Schoof and Nancy Youssef in Washington and Anita Lee in Gulfport, Miss., contributed to this report.)
MORE FROM MCCLATCHY