America braced as oil spill storms to coast

OIL from a massive spill was oozing ashore in the United State last night, amid warnings that rough seas could push it even faster into fragile wetlands.

Officials worked frantically to contain what could become the worst US environmental disaster in decades.

About 210,000 gallons of oil a day were spewing from a well drilled by the BP-operated rig the Deepwater Horizon, which exploded in flames on 20 April and sank two days later off the Louisiana coast.

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As the oil began to come ashore, the National Weather Service predicted winds, high tides and waves tomorrow that could push oil deep into the inlets, ponds and lakes that line Louisiana's south-east shore.

Last night, the Coast Guard was working with BP to set out floating booms, skimmers and detergents, and start controlled fires to burn off the slick. The Pentagon approved the use of two US Air Force planes to dump chemicals on the slick, in support of similar civilian efforts.

In an attempt to allay environmental fears, President Barack Obama directed that no new offshore oil drilling leases be issued unless rigs have safeguards to prevent a repeat of the explosion that unleashed the massive spill now threatening the Gulf coast.

Only a month ago, Mr Obama overruled restrictions on offshore oil exploration in the US, with the first offshore leases due to be issued for oilfields off Virginia by 2012 at the earliest.

His adviser, David Axelrod, said "no additional drilling has been authorised and none will until we find out what happened here".

Officials have said they would do everything to keep the busy Mississippi River – the largest US waterway – open to traffic.

The well, about 40 miles offshore, is leaking at such a pace that it could eclipse the worst oil spill in US history – the 11 million gallons that gushed from the grounded tanker Exxon Valdez in Alaska's Prince William Sound in 1989. It could take three months to drill a relief well and plug the well 5,000ft below the waves. The well has the potential to produce much more oil than a tanker could carry.

Coast Guard Rear Admiral Sally Brice-O'Hara faced questions yesterday about whether the government has done enough to push BP to plug the leak and protect the coast.

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She said the federal response led by the Coast Guard had been rapid, sustained and adapted as the threat grew. Eleven rig workers are still missing, presumed dead.

The slick threatens hundreds of species of fish, birds and other wildlife along the Gulf coast, one of the world's richest seafood grounds, teeming with shrimp, oysters and other marine life.

Yesterday, rescue crews had begun cleaning the first bird found coated with oil. Workers from Tri-State Bird Rescue and Research said they found the young northern gannet offshore, not on the shoreline.

Oil fouls seabirds' feathers, leaving them without their natural insulation – and when they preen themselves, they ingest it. Birds can then die from poisoning, drowning, lack of food and hypothermia. Wildlife officials said they had set up a protective boom around some of the most vulnerable areas.

"It is of grave concern," David Kennedy, of the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration, said. "I am frightened.

"This is a very, very big thing. And the efforts required to do anything about it, especially if it continues on, are just mind-boggling."

The leak from the ocean floor proved to be far bigger than initially reported, contributing to a growing sense among some in Louisiana that the government failed them again, just as the Bush administration did during Hurricane Katrina in 2005.

President Obama has already dispatched Cabinet officials to deal with the crisis.

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Cade Thomas, a fishing guide in Venice, worried that his livelihood will be destroyed. He said he did not know whether to blame the Coast Guard, the government or BP.

"They lied to us," he said. "They came out and said it was leaking 1,000 barrels when I think they knew it was more.

And they weren't proactive," he aded. "As soon as it blew up, they should have started wrapping it with booms."

BP has requested more resources from the Defence Department, especially underwater equipment that might be better than what is commercially available.

A BP executive said it would "take help from anyone". That includes fishermen who could be hired to help set booms.

Louisiana Governor Bobby Jindal declared a state of emergency, so officials could begin preparing for the worst.

The governor also asked the federal government if he could call up some 6,000 National Guards to help.

An emergency shrimping season was opened to allow worried fishermen to land catches before the spill fouled fishing grounds.