Most evenings, around 5 or 6 p.m., John Passwater guides his shrimp trawler, the Lauren Jean, out into Alabama’s Mobile Bay, which empties into the Gulf of Mexico near the border of Alabama and Mississippi. He’s been shrimping for more than 30 years, mostly in Mobile Bay or the surrounding waters, staying inside of the barrier islands that line the coast.
So far, the oil spill in the Gulf of Mexico, which was caused by the explosion of a BP deepwater oil well three weeks ago and is spewing out nearly 200,000 gallons of oil a day, hasn’t stopped Passwater from fishing in the shallow waters. Farther out at sea, though, it’s a different story. Last week, federal authorities, worried that oil had come into contact with sealife, closed off a large swath of federal waters, from Louisiana all the way to Florida, to fishing. “Hopefully, they won’t close the inside waters,” says Passwater. “We’re just hoping that they get that thing capped.” April and May, he notes, are prime shrimping months in the Gulf.
As the crisis has continued to grow, President Obama has marshaled more resources to try to protect vulnerable shorelines and wetlands and to help local communities deal with the environmental and economic consequences of the oil mess. The administration says it expects BP to pay for the cleanup and for financial losses suffered by local residents. Much of the Gulf Coast is anxiously listening to reports of where the oil slick might be headed and what BP and the federal government are doing to try to control the situation. “The really scary part is what does the future hold?” says Passwater. “What do you do if the oil is in the sand? What do you do if it gets in the oysters and kills the plankton; if it takes part of the ecosystem?”
Answers about the severity of the spill will depend on what happens in the next days and weeks. So far, the news isn’t good. Around the middle of last week, BP reported some—but largely limited—progress controlling the leak, saying that it had capped one of three breaks in the well, about 5,000 feet below the surface, using remote-controlled robots. But, as the company bluntly put it, “this has stopped the flow from this point, but is not expected to affect the overall rate of flow from the well.” It also began drilling a well deep beneath the ocean floor to meet and eventually plug the leaking well. But the new well will take at least three months to drill, making it at best a long-term solution.
But the biggest hope for stopping the flow, or at least trapping it, turned out to be a disappointment. The company had been scrambling to build a four-story containment structure, which it completed last Wednesday and loaded onto a boat at Port Fourchon, La. On Friday, it lowered the structure over the main leak on the ocean floor, hoping to collect the escaping oil and funnel it through a pipe to a rig on the surface. But the containment dome quickly became clogged with crystals, forcing the company to rethink its approach.
Meanwhile, BP has been trying to break up the oil that’s already in the water by dropping tens of thousands of gallons of chemicals over the slick and burning small portions of it, while also doling out with federal help more than a million feet of boom along the shore. As of early this week, the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration was warning that, based on buoy data, the oil slick was moving westward, which would bring it into contact with some of the rich wetlands and sounds of Louisiana. “The worst thing from our side is that we can’t prepare,” says John Adornato, the southeast regional director for the National Parks Conservation Association. “When a hurricane comes, you’ve got the shutters on the windows; you’ve got the water in the bathtub. With this, there’s no tool. I’m not sure we know what we can do.”
Adornato is based in Florida, and so far that state’s Gulf coast hasn’t been hit by the slick. But there’s a concern that if the oil blows eastward, it could get picked up by the Gulf Loop Current, which sweeps down south along Florida’s western edge, around the Keys, and up along the Atlantic seaboard. In that scenario, many communities outside the Gulf would also have to start worrying about the oil. “The fact is that oil is in the water and it’s going to move somewhere,” Adornato says.