Winds hamper oil spill fight

Photo by Dave Martin

Photo by Dave Martin

MOUTH OF THE MISSISSIPPI RIVER -- Heavy winds and high tides complicated efforts to hold back oil that threatened to coat birds and other marine life as it oozed ashore from the Gulf of Mexico on Friday. The White House responded to the massive spill by halting new offshore oil projects until safeguards are in place to prevent explosions like the one that caused it.

The National Weather Service predicted winds, high tides and waves through Sunday that could push oil deep into the inlets, ponds and lakes of southeastern Louisiana. Seas of 6 to 7 feet were pushing tides several feet above normal toward the coast, and the wind was pushing oily water over the booms meant to contain it.

President Barack Obama assured Gulf Coast communities that the federal government was fully prepared to meet its responsibilities, and several officials from his administration descended on the coast Friday.

''I am confident we will get to the bottom of what happened here,'' said Interior Secretary Ken Salazar. ''Those responsible will be held accountable.''

His department announced it would send teams to the Gulf to inspect all platforms and rigs.

More than 200,000 gallons of oil a day are spewing from the blown-out well at the site of the Deepwater Horizon, which exploded April 20 and sank two days later. Crews are using at least six remotely operated vehicles to try to shut off an underwater valve, but so far they've been unsuccessful.

They are also drilling a relief well to decrease the pressure and slowing the leak, though that could take up to three months.

Meanwhile, concern grew about animals and plants on the ecologically fragile coastline.

A rescue operation at Fort Jackson, about 70 miles southeast of New Orleans, had its first patient Friday, a young northern gannett found offshore. The bird is normally white with a yellow head and long, pointed beak but was covered in thick, black oil. Workers with Delaware-based Tri-State Bird Rescue and Research use Dawn blue dishwashing soap to scrub any oil-tainted animals.

Down the coast, at the Institute for Marine Mammal Studies in Gulfport, Miss., scientists, veterinarians and researchers frantically prepared for the possible arrival of hundreds of oily sea mammals in the coming days.

The nonprofit facility's director, Dr. Moby Solangi, said Friday the site will be ground zero for injured marine mammals from Texas to Florida.

Pools are freshly cleaned and prepared to handle sea turtles, manatees and dolphins. There are as many as 5,000 dolphins in the Gulf area between the Mississippi and Louisiana coasts and the oil rig, many giving birth right now.

''It's very bad timing,'' Solangi said. ''We're going to have a lot of babies here. We're looking at a colossal tragedy.''

The cause of the explosion has not been determined. Oil services contractor Halliburton Inc. said in a statement Friday that workers had finished a cementing operation 20 hours before the rig went up in flames. A lawsuit filed this week by two Mississippi shrimpers claims the cementing work created increased pressure at the well.