By ROBERT BURNS and STEVEN R. HURST
Associated Press Writers
VENICE, La. - No remedy in sight, President Barack Obama on Sunday warned of a "massive and potentially unprecedented environmental disaster" as a badly damaged oil well in the Gulf of Mexico spewed a widening and deadly slick toward delicate wetlands and wildlife. He said it could take many days to stop.
Obama flew to southern Louisiana to inspect forces arrayed against the oil gusher as Cabinet members described the situation as grave and insisted the administration was doing everything it could. Then he took a 15-mile helicopter ride over marshlands and estuaries to a coastal area, but high winds prevented the craft from going out to the 30-mile oil slick caused by as much as 210,000 gallons of crude gushing into the Gulf each day.
The spill threatened not only the environment but also the region's abundant fishing industry, which Obama called "the heartbeat of the region's economic life." As of now, it appeared little could be done in the short term to stem the oil flow, which was also drifting toward the beaches of neighboring Mississippi and farther east along the Florida Panhandle. Obama said the slick was 9 miles off the coast of southeastern Louisiana.
Those who live and work in the region braced for the economic impact on fishing and tourism. In front of a cabin and RV park in Boothville, along Louisiana Highway 23, was a plywood sign pleading: "Obama Send Help!!!!"
BP Chairman Lamar McKay raised faint hope that the spill might be stopped more quickly by lowering a hastily manufactured dome to the ruptured wellhead a mile deep in the next six to eight days, containing the oil and then pumping it to the surface. Such a procedure has been used in some well blowouts but never at the mile-deep waters of this disaster.
The leaking well was not only an ecological disaster but a potential political hazard, as well, depending on how the public judges the Obama administration's response. In 2005, President George W. Bush stumbled in dealing with Hurricane Katrina in the Gulf and left the impression of a president distant from immense suffering. His presidency never recovered.
An investigation is under way into the cause of the April 20 well explosion and, depending on its outcome, questions may be raised about whether federal regulation of offshore rigs operating in extremely deep waters is sufficient and whether the government is requiring the best available technology to shut off such wells in event of a blowout.
The president vowed that his administration, while doing all it could to mitigate the disaster, would require well owner BP America to bear all costs. "Your government will do whatever it takes for as long as it takes to stop this crisis," he said.
"BP is responsible for this leak. BP will be paying the bill," Obama said after a Coast Guard briefing in Venice, a Gulf Coast community serving as a staging area for the response. He stood before cameras in a heavy rain, water dripping from his face.
The president also stopped to talk with six local fishermen and said the challenge is "How do we plug this hole?" After that, he said, protecting the estuaries would be the next priority.
"We're going to do everything in our power to protect our natural resources, compensate those who have been harmed, rebuild what has been damaged and help this region persevere like it has done so many times before," Obama said.
Arriving in New Orleans, the president shunned helicopter travel because of a threat of tornadoes and drove to Venice to tour a close-to-the-water staging area where the government and BP were trying to keep the slick from causing even more damage.
Homeland Security Secretary Janet Napolitano said any comparison between the ruptured BP oil well and Katrina was "a total mischaracterization" and that the government had taken an "all hands on deck" approach from the beginning.
Administration officials have been at pains to explain that Obama's late March decision to expand offshore oil exploration could be altered as a result of the spill and that stricter safety rules would doubtless be written into leases.
Hurst reported from Washington. Associated Press writer Allen Breed in Louisiana contributed to this report.