MOUTH OF THE MISSISSIPPI RIVER – The worst U.S. oil spill in decades reached into precious shoreline habitat along the Gulf Coast as documents emerged showing British Petroleum downplayed the possibility of a catastrophic accident at the offshore rig that exploded.
BP suggested in a 2009 exploration plan and environmental impact analysis for the well that an accident leading to a giant crude oil spill — and serious damage to beaches, fish and mammals — was unlikely, or virtually impossible.
The Coast Guard estimates now that at least 1.6 million gallons of oil have spilled since the April 20 explosion that killed 11 workers. The amount already threatens to make it the worst U.S. oil disaster since the Exxon Valdez spilled 11 million gallons off Alaska's shores in 1989.
"The sort of occurrence that we've seen on the Deepwater Horizon is clearly unprecedented," BP spokesman David Nicholas told The Associated Press on Friday. "It's something that we have not experienced before ... a blowout at this depth."
The plan for the Deepwater Horizon well, filed with the federal Minerals Management Service, said repeatedly that it was "unlikely that an accidental surface or subsurface oil spill would occur from the proposed activities."
The company conceded a spill would impact beaches, wildlife refuges and wilderness areas, but argued that "due to the distance to shore (48 miles) and the response capabilities that would be implemented, no significant adverse impacts are expected."
Robert Wiygul, an Ocean Springs, Miss.-based environmental lawyer and board member for the Gulf Restoration Network, said he doesn't see anything in the document suggesting BP addressed the kind of technology needed to control a spill at that depth of water.
"The point is, if you're going to be drilling in 5,000 feet of water for oil, you should have the ability to control what you're doing," he said.
The spill — a slick more than 130 miles long and 70 miles wide — threatens hundreds of species of wildlife, including birds, dolphins and the fish, shrimp, oysters and crabs that make the Gulf Coast one of the nation's most abundant sources of seafood. Because of the risk of oil contamination, Louisiana closed some fishing grounds and oyster beds.
As of Friday, only a sheen of oil from the edges of the slick was washing up at Venice, La., and other extreme southeastern portions of Louisiana. But animal rescue operations ramped up, including one at Fort Jackson, about 70 miles southeast of New Orleans. That rescue crew had its first patient, a bird covered in thick, black oil. The bird, a young northern gannet found offshore, is normally white with a yellow head.
Several miles out, the normally blue-green gulf waters were dotted with sticky, pea- to quarter-sized brown beads the consistency of tar. High seas were forecast through Sunday and could push oil deep into the inlets, ponds, creeks and lakes that line the boot of southeastern Louisiana. With the wind blowing from the south, the mess could reach the Mississippi, Alabama and Florida coasts by Monday.
Amid increased fingerpointing, efforts sputtered to hold back the spill, while the government desperately cast about for new ideas for dealing with the growing environmental crisis. President Barack Obama halted any new offshore drilling projects unless rigs have new safeguards to prevent another disaster.
Jane Lubchenco, head of the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration, met with fishermen and others Friday night in Venice and said she had participated in a conference call earlier with governors from the Gulf states and BP. Stemming the flow of oil is the top priority, she said.
"There is very deep concern about what is happening," she told the group.
However, the seas were too rough and the winds too strong to burn off the oil, suck it up effectively with skimmer vessels, or hold it in check with the miles of orange and yellow inflatable booms strung along the coast.
The floating barriers broke loose in the choppy water, and waves sent oily water lapping over them.
"It just can't take the wave action," said Billy Nungesser, president of Louisiana's Plaquemines Parish.
Louisiana officials opened gates in the Mississippi River hoping a flood of fresh water would drive oil away from the coast. But winds thwarted that plan, too. The Louisiana National Guard was mobilized late Friday to help communities respond to the spill and the Pentagon said BP will be required to pay the costs of deployment.
BP also sought ideas from some of its rivals and was using at least one of them Friday — applying chemicals underwater to break up the oil before it reaches the surface. That had never before been attempted at such depths.
Although the cause of the explosion was under investigation, many of the more than two dozen lawsuits filed in the wake of the explosion claim it was caused when workers for oil services contractor Halliburton Inc. improperly capped the well — a process known as cementing. Halliburton denied it.
Crews have struggled for days without success to activate the well's underwater shutoff valve using remotely operated vehicles. They also are drilling a relief well in hopes of injecting mud and concrete to seal off the leak, but that could take three months.
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