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Oil's threat to wildlife turns real

Photo by Charlie Riedel

Photo by Charlie Riedel

ON BARATARIA BAY, La. -- The wildlife apocalypse along the Gulf Coast that everyone has feared for weeks is fast becoming a terrible reality.

Pelicans struggle to free themselves from oil, thick as tar, that gathers in hip-deep pools, while others stretch out useless wings, feathers dripping with crude. Dead birds and dolphins wash ashore, coated in the sludge. Seashells that once glinted pearly white under the hot June sun are stained crimson.

Scenes like this played out along miles of shoreline Saturday, nearly seven weeks after a BP rig exploded and the wellhead a mile below the surface began belching millions of gallon of oil.

''These waters are my backyard, my life,'' said boat captain Dave Marino, a firefighter and fishing guide from Myrtle Grove. ''I don't want to say heartbreaking, because that's been said. It's a nightmare. It looks like it's going to be wave after wave of it and nobody can stop it.''

The oil has steadily spread east, washing up in greater quantities in recent days, even as a cap placed by BP over the blownout well began to collect some of the escaping crude. The cap, resembling an upside-down funnel, has captured about 252,000 gallons of oil, according to Coast Guard Adm. Thad Allen, the government's point man for the crisis.

If earlier estimates are correct, that means the cap is capturing from a quarter to as much as half the oil spewing from the blowout each day. But that is a small fraction of the 23 million to 47 million gallons government officials estimate have leaked into the Gulf since the April 20 explosion that killed 11 workers, making it the nation's largest oil spill ever.

Allen, who said the goal is to gradually raise the amount of the oil being captured, compared the process to stopping the flow of water from a garden hose with a finger: ''You don't want to put your finger down too quickly, or let it off too quickly.''

BP officials are trying to capture as much oil as possible without creating too much pressure or allowing the buildup of ice-like hydrates, which form when water and natural gas combine under high pressures and low temperatures.

President Barack Obama pledged Saturday in his weekly radio and Internet address to fight the spill with the people of the Gulf Coast. His words for oil giant BP PLC were stern: ''We will make sure they pay every single dime owed to the people along the Gulf coast.''

But his reassurances offer limited consolation to the people who live and work along the coasts of four states -- Louisiana, Mississippi, Alabama and Florida -- now confronting the oil spill firsthand.

In Gulf Shores, Ala., boardwalks leading to hotels were tattooed with oil from beachgoers' feet. A slick hundreds of yards long washed ashore at a state park, coating the white sand with a thick, red stew. Cleanup workers rushed to contain it in bags, but more washed in before they could remove the first wave of debris.