Despair and resignation reigned among fishermen and other seafaring residents of the southern Louisiana shoreline yesterday as the vast Gulf of Mexico oil slick began to slide silently into fragile marshlands and ecologically precious inlets fed by a deep-water leak that no one seems able to plug.
"They can't turn it off, they don't know how to," lamented Captain Sean Lanier, who makes his livelihood taking tourists fishing for redfish and speckled trout through the grassy waterways and inlets at the mouth of Mississippi here. "What we need now is a James Bond to go down there and close that thing down."
More than a week after the sinking of the BP-operated Deepwater Horizon rig, about 40 miles out to sea from here, the leading edge of a slick as large as Jamaica was beginning to lick the reeds and mud flats of the estuary, threatening oyster beds, fisheries and tourism in communities that have barely recovered from Hurricane Katrina. Strong winds and 7ft waves were pushing the slick inshore even faster.
"Do you smell it? I've been smelling it for three days," says Captain Lanier of the oil, his black Labrador bitch (and shipmate in happier times) looking as forlorn as her master. "The wind's blowing real hard and blowing it right into our Roseau canes here and it's going to screw everything up for a long time. We might be unemployed for years when this is all over. We don't know what is going to happen."
It is the helplessness that gets to Captain Lanier the most. That and not knowing what's going on at the site of the leak and when it might be brought under control. "It's like getting your leg shot off and just sitting here watching yourself bleed to death," he says.
The community of Venice, a patch-work of homes on stilts, marinas, shipyards, a US Coast Guard station and (of course) oil terminals and a refinery, is as far south as you can get by road on the long proboscis that is the Mississippi Delta as the river empties into the Gulf. The region, which contains 40 per cent of the country's wetlands and supplies much of the US market for oysters and shrimp, is the first to bear the brunt of what may become the worst oil spill America has seen.
Everywhere there were signs of a desperate deployment of hardware and manpower to tackle the slick that only grows as the well continues to haemorrhage the black stuff at the rate of about 240,000 gallons a day. While Coast Guard helicopters skittered back and forth to land under a leaden sky, numerous small craft headed out with floating booms to keep the slick way from frail ecosystems.
In Washington, Barack Obama said the government was doing "everything necessary" to cope with the gathering disaster. Against a background of growing discontent with the pace of the government's response, Mr Obama's top adviser, David Axelrod, announced that no new offshore drilling would be permitted in the US until an investigation into what happened at the BP rig was concluded.
Two US Air Force planes were put on standby in Mississippi to dump detergents on the slick while BP said it was looking to the Navy to provide underwater equipment to assist in the efforts to shut off the leak. The deteriorating weather made further controlled burns of the slick impossible.
It has been the failure of the government and of BP so far to turn to locals here in Venice and in neighbouring ports that is most angering people. "I am just so mad at them for not using the local people more," said Rene Cross, 57, the owner of the Cypress Cove marina in Venice. "We have people who have worked these waters and lived here all their lives and they are not being asked to help."
Mr Cross says that if things become as dire as some ecologists predict, his entire marina "will go down after the summer. I may as well close the doors and leave". He has already been hit by numerous boat-owners ringing to cancel stays this summer. "Hurricane Katrina destroyed us. We have just got back to 100 per cent here – actually to 110 per cent of where we were before that – and now this happens."
While the strong winds and choppy seas made visual sighting of the slick difficult, no one seemed to be in doubt that an ecological calamity was almost upon them if it wasn't already. "I am frightened," warned David Kennedy, of the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration. "This is a very, very big thing. And the efforts that are going to be required to do anything about it, especially if it continues on, are just mind-boggling."
Last night an inland oil rig overturned in Louisiana's Charenton navigational canal.
The US Coast Guard said the rig was a mobile inland drilling unit with a 20,000 gallon diesel fuel capacity but that it didn't appear there was a leak.
Eddie Vangordon, 57, faces the collapse of his business running deep-sea charters out of Venice for fishermen in search of bluefin tuna and other larger species. He notes that the spawning season for the tuna is just starting and the eggs that float naturally to the surface for sunlight will be mixing with the oil. "But it's not just the tuna, the effects will go through the whole food chain out there, including the bait fish and the shrimp," he argued. And he is already worried about how long the effects of the BP spill might linger in the Delta. "If it gets into the mud, it's going to take 30 years to get it out."
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