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Spread of Gulf oil spill puts fragile Louisiana Coast on alert

The oil spill issuing from the sunken oil rig in the Gulf of Mexico is not yet an immediate threat to the Louisiana coast. But the longer it spreads, the greater the risk to the fragile ecosystem.

By Staff writer / April 26, 2010

This picture of the Louisiana coast, taken by the NASA Earth Observatory Sunday, shows the oil spill from the sunken oil rig as a silvery curl to the east of the Mississippi River delta, which juts out into the Gulf of Mexico. As of Monday, the slick was estimated to have spread across 1,800 square miles.

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Recovery crews are racing to shut down or at least contain oil pouring from the well of a destroyed oil rig in the Gulf of Mexico to prevent it from reaching the fragile Louisiana coastal wetlands.

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The US Coast Guard reported Sunday that as many as 1,000 barrels of oil a day – or 42,000 gallons – could be leaking into the water from about 5,000 feet below the surface. The Deepwater Horizon, a oil tanker operated by BP, sank Thursday after an explosion two days earlier.

By comparison, the Exxon Valdez released 11 million gallons into Alaska’s Prince William Sound in 1989.

IN PICTURES: Louisiana oil rig explosion

Robot submarines are being used to try shut off sources of the leak on the sea floor. BP is also launching a special rig Monday that will drill an intervention well to help control the oil flow. But those efforts could take months. Moreover, the company estimates that the sunken platform's tank may contain as many as 700,000 gallons of oil.

A coastline already 'degrading'

Reports suggest that the oil spill is not expected to make landfall in the next three days at least. But the spill's long-term effect on the coast could be determined by the time needed to cap the leaks. The Louisiana coast is already one of the nation’s most fragile ecosystems, says Alex Kolker, a coastal geologist at both Tulane University and Louisiana University. “Whether those methods work or not is the big variable,” he says.

Mr. Kolker says the coast is especially in danger because it is breeding season for the region’s population of shore birds, waterfowl, and fish. A disruption will be “critical” for maintaining the shoreline’s health.

“A lot of these ecosystems are already degrading because area subsided and has not been replenished with new sediments,” he says.

The spill is located about 40 miles off the Louisiana coast. Various reports suggested that the oil covered a 1,800 square-mile area Monday.

Staging efforts are being made to combat the oil should it continue to make its way to shore. The Coast Guard reports that 1,900 gallons of dispersant to break down the oil were used Friday, and that more 33,000 gallons of mixed oil and water have been captured already.

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