Gulf of Mexico Oil Spill Larger than Thought, Environmental Disaster Looms

More oil is leaking from the site of the Deepwater Horizon oil rig explosion, and officials now say the oil spill in the Gulf of Mexico is five times bigger than first thought. According to a report in The New York Times, a scientist from the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration (NOAA) estimates that 5,000 barrels a day, not 1,000 as first stated, is leaking from the stricken well.

If the new estimates are correct, the slick could match the 11 million gallons that spilled during the 1989 Exxon Valdez disaster in a scant two months.

There’s even more bad news. According to an Associated Press report, a third leak from the well has been discovered, and the spill may be closer to shore than expected. Officials also fear that BP, the operator of the well, is not well equipped to contain the spill.

The operation to contain the oil is becoming desperate, the Associated Press said, as fears grow that the massive oil slick will reach the U.S. Gulf Coast tomorrow. Now the military may be called in to help contain the spill.

If the spill reaches the coast, it could be both environmentally and economically devastating to the states it impacts. According to a Bloomberg report, the Louisiana coast, for example, includes 3 million acres of wetlands that serve as a nursery for game fish such as speckled trout and red drum, and are currently nurturing the brown shrimp crop to be harvested by the state’s fishing fleet.

Louisiana’s seafood industry brings in annual retail sales of about $1.8 billion, while its sports fishing industry nets the state about $1 billion in sales every year. But the oil spill could cause long-term damage to the state’s marshes, severely damaging both industries. The marshes also are home to 5 million migratory birds, along with alligators, turtles and other species, Bloomberg said.

According to The New York Times, BP’s efforts to use the well’s blowout preventer – a set of valves designed to seal off the well in the event of a sudden pressure release to stop the leaking – has not worked. Yesterday, crews began corralling and burning some concentrated oil to try to keep it from reaching the coast. According to The Times, a small section was ignited yesterday afternoon and deemed a success. But weather and other conditions could impact how well the operation works in the long run.

As concerns about BP’s ability to handle the oil spill grew yesterday, the U.S. government offered the company military assistance. On the NBC Today show this morning, a BP official said the company would welcome the help.

According to the Associated Press, a spokesperson for a U.S. military base in Colorado Springs, Colo., that provides support to civil authorities during natural disasters said BP has not requested the defense department’s help to contain the leak. However, the official said the North American Aerospace Defense Command and the U.S. Northern Command at Peterson Air Force Base were anticipating the request.

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