VENICE, La. – Emergency crews rushed to protect fragile shorelines and islands as the Gulf of Mexico oil slick expanded, prompting a mobilization of more national guard troops and alerts as far as the Florida Keys.
With oil still gushing Wednesday from the ruptured offshore well, volunteers and others descended on the region to help stave off a looming environmental crisis from the huge oil patch.
Pentagon officials authorized the use of additional National Guard troops to assist. As many as 6,000 in Louisiana can be mobilized, with 3,000 in Alabama, 2,500 in Florida, and 6,000 in Mississippi.
Government officials said an estimated 7,500 people were mobilizing to protect the shoreline and wildlife, as fears grew about the impact of the catastrophe.
A sea turtle was spotted swimming through a massive oil slick about 15 miles south of Louisiana by officials from the National Wildlife Foundation. The group hired a boat from the port town of Venice and went out into the Gulf of Mexico through an outlet in the Mississippi River.
Nobody on board was trained in animal rescue, and they were forced to leave the obviously distressed turtle in the slick and simply report the coordinates to a hotline.
"It was very upsetting," said Karla Raettig of Coastal Louisiana Restoration at the Federation.
The expanding oil slick threatens more than 600 animal species in the gulf, officials say.
Twelve shrimp trawlers and 10 official response boats frantically laid protective booms around some of the Chandeleur Islands — a group of uninhabited prime marsh and wildlife area — but initially failed to confirm any land impacts.
In Florida, authorities were preparing for the impact of the oil slick if loop currents bring the pollution to the state's shores. Coast Guard officials said the mobilization was occurring as far away as Key West.
"Although it is still too soon to predict if or how the Florida Keys may be impacted by the Deepwater Horizon spill, we are focused on preparing for whatever those impacts may be," said Captain Pat DeQuattro, sector commander at Coast Guard Sector Key West.
Two weeks after the Deepwater Horizon rig exploded, the full impact of the disaster is being realized as a massive slick looms off the U.S. gulf coast, threatening to wipe out the livelihoods of shoreline communities.
If estimates are correct, about 2.5 million gallons of crude have streamed into the sea since the BP-leased platform sank spectacularly on April 22, still ablaze more than two days after the initial blast that killed 11 workers.
The riser pipe that had connected the rig to the wellhead now lies fractured on the seabed spewing out oil at a rate that could see the spill rival the 1989 Exxon Valdez environmental disaster in Alaska.
On the coastal areas of Mississippi, Alabama, and Louisiana, forecasters suggested that the bulk of the slick won't make landfall before the end of the week, officials said.
BP crews kept working beneath the sea to stop the well's hemorrhage of an estimated 210,000 gallons a day. BP said work had begun on a relief well to intercept the leaking well about 13,000 feet below the seabed and permanently seal it. However, the process could take three months, the company said.
AFP journalists on an overflight of the islands saw reddish brown streaks of oil surrounding some of the islands and said light sheen appeared to be lapping the shore in certain places.
The U.S. government's weather agency has been predicting for days that the sheen on the edge of the slick at least could hit the Mississippi River Delta, the Chandeleur Islands and nearby Breton Island.
BP is preparing to deploy a 98-ton containment "dome" to try to stem the tide of oil gushing into the Gulf of Mexico and avert an environmental catastrophe.
The operation to place the giant structure over the largest of three oil leaks is unprecedented and, facing depths of almost a mile, remote-controlled submarines will have to guide it into place, possibly by the weekend.
U.S. officials said nearly 200 vessels are involved in the cleanup response, with 367,000 of feet of boom deployed to contain the spill.
© AFP 2013