A task force has thrown everything – including fire – at the Gulf of Mexico oil spill to keep it from sloshing into an area that holds 40 percent of the lower 48 states' coastal wetlands. The creeping slick of light crude oil has been declared an event of "national significance," signaling that the federal government is ramping up its response, with the US military also now joining federal and private resources.
But what's being described as "globs of roofing tar" are already washing up on the Chandeleur Islands off Louisiana, and new reports suggest that the renegade wellhead at 5,000 feet below the ocean surface in the Mississippi Canyon is leaking five times as much oil as previously thought.
The news raises fresh questions about the adequacy of the response, and whether – or to what extent – it will actually succeed.
Vastly unlike the quick leak and "black tide" of the Exxon Valdez tanker disaster off Alaska in 1989, the Deepwater Horizon leak is an "unprecedented type of spill" that has overwhelmed available resources, says Ed Overton, an emeritus professor of environmental science at Louisiana State University.
"People are finally realizing that they're not going to shut this thing off. If we could stop the oil right now, we could handle the spill, but realistically we're looking at stopping it in August or September."
"As you realize the level of magnitude of that, you've got to bring in more resources, and certainly the military can help," he says. "This is not going to be a black tide of oil, it's globs of oil coming in patches, but it's going to come for a long time. At this point, it's impossible to protect everything."
Gulf Coasters are bracing for what now threatens to become the worst oil spill accident in US history. "It's unreal they haven't even stopped it yet," Long Beach, Miss., charter boat captain Barry Deshamp told CNN. "At first they were telling us it's not even leaking."
Fifty miles out to sea, 70 vessels – including tugboat barges, airplanes, helicopters, special recovery boats and oil skimmers – are working feverishly to corral, break down, or incinerate the spill, with BP spending $6 million a day on battling the Jamaica-sized 45-by-105 mile slick.
The US military will provide mostly logistics to the operation, including landing platforms for helicopters so they can refuel easier and spend more time at work. The White House said Thursday that BP will have to pay for the entire cleanup.
By the time the Macondo well is finally capped using a containment dome and drilling a relief well, the Deepwater Horizon accident may have spilled more oil than the 11 million gallons emptied out of the Exxon Valdez.
"Probably the only thing comparable to this is the Kuwait fires" following the Gulf War in 1991, Mike Miller, head of Canadian oil well fire-fighting company Safety Boss, told the BBC World Service."The Exxon Valdez is going to pale in comparison to this as it goes on."
To protect sensitive fish nurseries and bird rookeries, the Coast Guard has already laid more than 9,000 feet of containment rings around the Pass a Loutre Wildlife Management Area. The Coast Guard is also laying booms around Venice, in lower Plaquemines Parish, the area closest to the spill. Four staging areas are being set up in Louisiana, Mississippi, Alabama, and Florida to deploy 500,000 feet (95 miles) of available oil booms.
But even as Overton says "we'll quickly use up the world's supply of oil booms," the booms won't be able to hold back all the oil. In calm water or harbors, booms can be effective, but in the open ocean or wind-battered shoreline they'll be marginally effective and will quickly wear out.
Another open question is whether the oil will continue to ball up and float or whether some of it will sink. That would put oyster beds, which might otherwise survive unscathed, in jeopardy. And trying to clean up the deep nooks and crannies of the Louisiana marshes will require new technologies, especially since clean-up efforts themselves could damage the areas as much or more than the globs of oil.
On Thursday, Homeland Security Secretary Janet Napolitano said the spill has been declared an event of "national significance," meaning the government can designate more resources to fight the spread of oil. "Every available asset" will be used, she said.