NEW ORLEANS — The response to the oil spill in the Gulf of Mexico intensified abruptly on Thursday, with the federal government intervening more aggressively as the rapidly growing slick drifted ever closer to the fragile coastline of Louisiana.
Resources from the United States Navy were marshaled to supplement an operation that already consisted of more than 1,000 people and scores of vessels and aircraft.
Calling it “a spill of national significance” which could threaten coastline in several states, Homeland Security Secretary Janet Napolitano announced the creation of a second command post in Mobile, Ala., in addition to the one in Louisiana, to manage potential coastal impact in Alabama, Mississippi and Florida. Interior Secretary Ken Salazar ordered an immediate review of the 30 offshore drilling rigs and 47 production platforms operating in the deepwater Gulf, and is sending teams to conduct on-site inspections.
The oil slick was only three miles offshore on Thursday afternoon and was expected to hit coastal Louisiana as early as Thursday evening, prompting Gov. Bobby Jindal to declare a state of emergency and to request the participation of the National Guard in cleanup efforts. About 40,000 feet of boom had been placed around Pass-a-Loutre, the area of the Mississippi River Delta where the oil was expected to touch first, a spokesman for Jindal said.
The Navy provided 50 contractors, seven skimming systems and 66,000 feet of inflatable containment boom. About 210,000 feet of boom had been laid down to protect the shoreline in several places along the Gulf Coast, though experts said that marshlands presented a far more daunting cleaning challenge than sandy beaches.
Eight days after the first explosion on the rig, which killed 11 workers, the tenor of the response team’s briefings changed abruptly Wednesday night with a hastily called news conference to announce that the rate of the spill was estimated to be 5,000 barrels a day, or more than 200,000 gallons — five times the previous estimate. By Thursday, it was apparent that the cleanup operation desperately needed help, with no indication that the well would be sealed any time soon and oil drifting closer to shore.
Opponents of President Barack Obama’s plan to expand offshore drilling have also called for a halt. Sen. Bill Nelson, D-Fla., called Thursday for a moratorium on all new offshore oil exploration while the cause of this rig explosion is under investigation.
Administration officials said that they expected that members of Congress and the public would have new questions about the safety of offshore operations, and that the administration would rethink its commitment to offshore drilling in light of the accident.