MOUTH OF THE MISSISSIPPI RIVER (AP) - 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 any new offshore oil projects until safeguards are in place to prevent rig 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.
Halliburton is named as a defendant in most of the more than two dozen lawsuits filed by Gulf Coast people and businesses claiming the oil spill could ruin them financially. Without elaborating, one lawsuit filed by an injured technician on the rig claims that Halliburton "improperly and negligently" performed its job in cementing the well, "increasing the pressure at the well and contributing to the fire, explosion and resulting oil spill."
Cementing is a process of applying a liquid slurry of cement and water to points inside or outside of the casing, a pipe used to prevent the wall of the hole from caving in during drilling and providing a means of bringing oil and gas up later if the well starts producing. Halliburton said it had four employees stationed on the rig at the time of the explosion, performing a variety of tasks, including cementing.
"Halliburton continues to assist in efforts to identify the factors that may have (led) up to the disaster, but it is premature and irresponsible to speculate on any specific causal issues," the company said in a statement Friday.
Volunteers started arriving Friday in Venice, La., though there wasn't much for them to do because the water was so choppy. About two dozen workers in hard hats and lifejackets were stuck on shore at a marina, lounging on small work boats, some laden with boom, ready to go to work. Some smoked cigarettes and spat sunflower seeds as they waited for assignments.
Volunteer Valerie Gonsoulin, a 51-year-old kayaker from Lafayette who wore an "America's Wetlands" hat, said she hoped to help spread containment booms to hold back the oil. "I've been sitting here watching that NASA image grow and it grows," she said. "I knew it would hit every place I fish and love."
So far, boom has been laid around all the area's wildlife refuges, including the fragile Chandeleur Islands. But with the waves much choppier and higher than normal, the water is rolling right over the booms and carrying the oil with it.
"It just can't take the wave action," said Plaquemines Parish President Billy Nungesser, who surveyed the coastline from a helicopter Friday and said he spotted several places where booms broke free or were covered by oily water. Wind was also hampering efforts by the state of Louisiana to divert thousands of gallons of fresh water from the Mississippi River to try to flush out the wetlands. The Louisiana National Guard prepared to send communication equipment, boats, all-terrain vehicles and other equipment to help.
On Friday, Obama directed that no new offshore oil drilling leases be issued unless rigs have new safeguards. "We are making sure any leases going forward have those safeguards," Obama said at a White House Rose Garden event. He had recently lifted a drilling moratorium for many offshore areas, including the Atlantic and Gulf.
The Pentagon on Friday approved the use of two Air Force planes to dump chemicals on the oil spill, which civilian planes have already been doing. The Navy also sent equipment for the cleanup, and Pentagon officials were talking with the Department of Homeland Security to figure out what other help the military could give.
The Coast Guard is working with rig operator BP to deploy floating booms, skimmers and chemical dispersants, and has set controlled fires to burn the oil off the water's surface. Faint fingers of oily sheen began reaching the Mississippi River delta late Thursday, lapping the Louisiana shoreline in long, thin lines.
The Coast Guard defended the federal response so far. Asked on all three network television morning shows Friday whether the government has done enough to push oil company BP PLC to plug the underwater leak and protect the coast, Coast Guard Rear Adm. Sally Brice-O'Hara said the response led by her agency has been rapid, sustained and has adapted as the threat grew.
The oil slick could become the nation's worst environmental disaster in decades, threatening to eclipse even the worst oil spill in U.S. history, the Exxon Valdez, the grounded tanker that leaked 11 million gallons in Alaska's Prince William Sound in 1989.
The sheen measured about 70 miles by 130 miles as of Thursday, and officials expected to update that figure Friday. BP has requested more resources from the Defense Department, especially underwater equipment that might be better than what is commercially available.
A BP executive said the corporation would "take help from anyone." That includes fishermen who could be hired to help deploy containment boom. The company also sought ideas from the government and other oil companies and was poised to implement at least one of them - using chemicals to disperse the oil underwater - later Friday.
Louisiana Gov. Bobby Jindal declared a state of emergency and asked the federal government if he could call up 6,000 National Guard troops to help. Florida Gov. Charlie Crist declared a state of emergency for the state's Panhandle.