Recriminations mounted yesterday over the part played by BP and possibly by the US energy services giant Halliburton in the environmental catastrophe that continues to gather in the Gulf of Mexico, threatening fisheries, bird habitats, tourist beaches, and the livelihoods of countless coastal communities.
The White House, which has been criticised for a faltering federal response last week to the crisis, said that President Barack Obama would visit the region today. He may cross paths, and swords, with Tony Hayward, the chief executive of BP, who was last night also on his way here from London.
Federal and state officials have stepped up their criticism of BP, saying it moved too slowly to grasp the scale of the spill after the loss of the Deepwater Horizon rig in the Gulf, 48 miles from the mouth of the Mississippi River.
"I think they [BP] heard an earful about how unhappy everyone is, and how we expect them to step up to the plate and do more," said Dr Jane Lubchenco, of the US National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration, who was meeting local fishermen to hear their concerns.
Investigators in Washington are focusing on efforts made by BP last year to thwart government efforts to tighten regulations for deep-water drilling, and also on a 2009 plan the company submitted for this particular well in which it insisted that something going wrong which might cause a large spill was "unlikely".
Class action lawsuits have now been filed against both BP and Halliburton, which was contracted to complete the crucial task of installing the cement housing that is meant to stop any seepage around the drill bit as it penetrates the sea bed to pierce the crude reserves. The company has been called to give evidence to Congress amid suspicions that the blow-out may have been caused by a failure of the cement.
Ground zero for the response to the crisis remained the ramshackle series of marinas, shipyards and oil industry support offices here in Venice at the southern end of the Mississippi Delta in Louisiana, where the bumpy, traffic-clogged streets have names such as Coast Guard Road and, indeed, Halliburton Road.
Fisheries east of the mouth of the Mississippi were already closed by early yesterday. But among local fishermen and charter captains, it was the uncertainty of when the worst of the slick might come – and what kind of damage it would eventually do – that was taking the worst toll.
David Mill, the owner of a fishing charter business, compared his plight to Pearl Harbor. "We just got through Hurricane Katrina, which was a national disaster, and now this. It is kinda like we are fixing to be bombed," he said, perched on the verandah of the Harbour Seafood and Oyster Bar, beer bottle in hand.
"What's gong to happen, we don't know. We don't have a clue and that's the really bad part," said Peter Young, 41, who similarly makes a living, especially in the summer months, taking fishermen from around the world through the Louisiana wetlands looking for species such as the speckled trout. "All we can do is get cassé-ed," he said – a local term here in French-influenced Cajun country for drunk.
As federal officials began to assail BP, many of the locals in Venice – almost every one of whom either works directly for the oil and gas industry or has family members who do – were also beginning to wonder why action to protect the local wetlands and fisheries had not started sooner.
Among them was C J Robichaux, who ventured out into the high swells of the Gulf on the southern edges of the barrier islands with a reporter in a small open boat barely bigger than a Vauxhall. Mr Robichaux said he lost his father in 1969 when a hurricane blew the lid off a Chevron storage tank, soaking with oil the area where he lived north of Venice. His father's body was found 10 miles upriver.
White-stomached mullet fling themselves through the surface of the Gulf waters as we cut through a heavy swell and chop. At times it seems flattened by what Mr Robichaux reckons are the ribbons of the oil sheen that experts say are the harbingers of an approaching slick. Occasionally, he throttles back and we gaze at what might almost be a seaborne savannah of gorgeous speckled islands of cane, thick with terns and other seabirds. A small forest of oil rigs clings to the hazy horizon far out to sea.
On a normal day, Mr Robichaux operates a crew boat for oil workers near Port Sulphur, an hour north of here towards New Orleans. But today he is anxious to see how far they have got in deploying the floating booms that are meant to protect the marshlands and fisheries from the encroaching oil. "Not a damn one, not one," he complains over and over as our explorations find no evidence of anything much going on out here aside from military helicopters eyeing us from above. (We are in the area that, just hours later, will be closed down to fishing by the authorities.) While we have both seen workers loading the booms on to boats back in Venice, there is no evidence of them being laid.
Not that they are guaranteed to help anyway, as Mr Robichaux, a slightly grizzled and compact man with a taste for nicotine, observes. "I don't know, with the kind of swell we having now, that those booms are going to do any good anyhow." Today, the waves would slosh over anything less than a yard high.
While in Venice people laboured under a sense of limbo, unable to see the oil but well aware that it was coming (occasionally you catch a petrol whiff), the mood of oil spill experts continued to darken. Most crucially, there was no optimism from anyone that the efforts of BP, with help now from other energy companies, to plug the leak in the ocean floor would be successful.
The prospect remained that the snapped oil pipe rising from the crippled well could continue to spew its poisonous load for three months or longer. The surface slick was last night already 3,850 square miles in area, three times larger than Hampshire. An internal memo from the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration, NOAA, obtained by a newspaper in Alabama, suggested that the rate of leakage could "become unchecked, resulting in a release volume an order of magnitude [ten times] higher than previously thought". That would imply that the 5,000 barrels a day rate of flow – the current estimate – could become 50,000 barrels a day.
Worse still, the oil coming from the well is of a particularly viscous nature and hard to clean up. "If I had to pick a bad oil, I'd put this right up there," Ed Overton, an industry expert at Louisiana State University, cautioned. Like other experts, he said everything was combining to make this spill as bad as any seen before. "This has all the characteristics of a category five hurricane."
As he arrives here, Mr Hayward of BP will plunge into what would be any energy company's worst nightmare. The questions awaiting him include why it took the company so long to recognise what was happening one mile under the ocean's surface. This time last week, the word from BP – and the US Coast Guard – was that the spill from the collapse was small. Even when that was exposed as inaccurate, the company insisted that any slick would be contained and would not reach land.
He will also be asked to explain more distant actions, including the company's resistance to Washington's attempts to introduce a new rule to make deep-sea drilling safer. A letter from BP to the US government dated 14 September 2009, made its position clear. "While BP is supportive of companies having a system in place to reduce risks, accidents, injuries and spills, we are not supportive of the extensive prescriptive regulations as proposed in this rule," the letter said.
There could be further embarrassment in passages from the plan for the well site that was submitted by the company to federal authorities last year. While it does not rule out that a leak could harm beaches, wetlands and wildlife refuges, no one should be worried, it said: "due to the distance to shore (48 miles) and the response capabilities that would be implemented, no significant adverse impacts are expected."
Harry Waxman, the chairman of the Energy and Commerce Committee in the US Congress, instructed Halliburton to brief his investigators on its activities at the rig regarding the cementing of the well hole. It emerged that Halliburton crews completed the cementing just hours before the catastrophic explosion on board the rig on the 20 April that caused it to sink and kill 11 workers at the site. Elmer Danenberger, formerly with the Department of the Interior, spoke on ABC about the risks of a blow-out if the cementing had not been completed with all possible care. "With these cementing operations it's just a matter of not being attentive enough," he said. "What you want is a closed system. You want the cemented pipe totally sealing the well bore. If you don't have that, you have problems."
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