VENICE, Louisiana (Reuters) - Oil from a massive spill in the Gulf of Mexico came ashore on a chain of islands off the Louisiana coast on Thursday as BP Plc engineers prepared to start lowering a 98-ton metal chamber over the ruptured seabed well miles off the coast.
A sheen of oil washed ashore on much of Chandeleur Islands, barrier islands that are part of the Breton National Wildlife Refuge, a spokeswoman for the U.S. response team said.
“That’s the only shoreline oiling that we have been able to find,” Jacqui Michel, an official with the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration said at a news briefing. “It is pretty amazing that we’ve had the oil in the water for this long a period of time and so little shoreline oiling.”
The Breton refuge is an important breeding and nesting area for many endangered and threatened bird species.
Oiled birds, including gannets and brown pelicans, Louisiana’s state bird, have been found on the islands, said Jeff Dauzat of the Louisiana Department of Environmental Quality.
Obama administration officials and U.S. lawmakers kept up the pressure on BP to make good on its promises to pick up the tab for cleaning up what could end up being the largest oil spill in United States history.
“Very major mistakes” were made by companies involved in the deadly offshore rig explosion that led to the spill and no new offshore drilling permits will be issued until a review is complete, Interior Secretary Ken Salazar said on Thursday.
A barge carrying the massive white containment box arrived at the spill site where a BP-owned well blew out two weeks ago 40 miles (64 km) off the Louisiana coast, causing the explosion and sinking of the Deepwater Horizon rig.
Once the four-story-tall metal dome is lowered to the seabed in an operation that could take two days, it is supposed to capture leaking oil and channel it to a drilling ship on the surface. BP said the dome, the best short-term option for containing the leak, could begin operations by Monday.
“We’ll be lowering this containment vessel within the next 24 hours, weather permitting,” Robert Dudley, a BP executive vice president, said after giving a speech in Boston.
A Coast Guard official said the oil threatening the Chandeleurs was “largely just sheen,” or the leading edge of the slick.
Heavy oil remains further off the coast for now, close to the site of the leak. But the Mississippi Delta, Breton Sound, and Chandeleur Sound continue to be threatened by shoreline contacts over the next few days, officials said.
By late Saturday night into Sunday morning winds in the Gulf region could pick up to 15 to 20 knots (17 to 23 mph; 27 to 37 kph), said Tim Destri, a meteorologist with the National Weather Service office in New Orleans. That may make efforts to battle the slick more difficult.
Oil workers, volunteers and the military have battled desperately to shut off the gushing leak and stop the huge spreading oil slick from reaching major ports, tourist beaches, wildlife refuges and fishing grounds on the Gulf Coast.
While the calm weather continues, crews are taking advantage of a window of opportunity to fight the leak. About 270 boats deployed protective booms on Thursday to block the slick and dispersants to break up the thick oil.
The chemical dispersants worried environmentalists.
“These dispersants contain proprietary chemicals that have unknown effects,” said Larry Schweiger, president the National Wildlife Federation, who called on BP to close what chemicals are in their dispersants.
Scientists monitored the impact on marine and coastal wildlife of the oil slick, estimated to be at least 130 miles by 70 miles (210 km by 110 km) in size.
“It has already hit some of the fishing areas further out,” said Leonard Ball, a resident of Biloxi, Mississippi, adding he feared damage to oyster bays and the fishing community.
“There’s already a lot of devastation as far as the fishermen go,” he said.
Coast Guard and port officials said there had been no impact on ship traffic, and preparations were in place to clean vessels quickly en route to port to keep traffic moving.
BP has capped one of three leaks in the ruptured well, but oil is still flowing at an unchanged 5,000 barrels (210,000 gallons/795,000 litres) a day.
The company is drilling a relief well that could take two or three months to complete, making the containment dome the centrepiece of the short-term fight against the slick.
BP shares closed up 0.4 percent in London on Thursday as bargain hunting continued after weeks of declines wiped more than $32 billion (21.6 billion pounds) from the company’s market value.
In New York, the company’s American Depositary Receipts fell 1.2 percent.
In Houston, Interior Secretary Salazar met with BP officials on Thursday, and a bipartisan congressional delegation will visit the Gulf region on Friday.
The Senate Environment and Public Works Committee has slated a hearing on May 11 to examine the oil spill
Lamar McKay, president of BP America, Steven Newman, head of Transocean Ltd which owned the oil rig that exploded on April 20, and Tim Probert, president of Halliburton, have been called on to testify. Halliburton helped cement in place the blown-out well.
The attorneys-general of Gulf states threatened by the spill — Florida, Alabama, Mississippi, Louisiana and Texas — sent a letter to President Barack Obama and Attorney General Eric Holder seeking to establish a group to prepare for any damage assessment initiatives, enforcement or litigation relating to the spill.
A federal statute caps damage recoveries from oil spills at $75 million, if no negligence is established. Lawmakers on Capitol Hill are working on a measure to increase that to $10 billion.
BP has said it will pay all “legitimate claims,” but Alabama Attorney General Troy King called this a “lawyered up” answer and said the company should provide “plain-spoken” specifics.
Transocean said the U.S. Justice Department asked it to preserve records related to the well’s drilling and the deadly blast on its rig two weeks ago that killed 11 workers.
The Interior Department on Thursday cancelled a series of public meetings planned this month on a proposal to sell oil and gas leases off the Virginia coastline.
The move was cheered by environmentalists.
“Our ability to prevent and contain spills has not kept pace with our ability to access oil below ocean waters,” senior campaign director Jacqueline Savitz with the group Oceana said in a statement.
Additional reporting by Matt Daily in New York; Tom Bergin in London; Anna Driver and Chris Baltimore in Houston; Tom Brown and Pascal Fletcher in Miami; Michael Peltier in Pensacola; Steve Gorman and Brian Snyder in Mobile; Scott Malone in Boston; and Richard Cowan in Washington; writing by John Whitesides and Ros Krasny; editing by Mohammad Zargham