Gulf Oil Spill: From Bad to Worse

Work crews with Ashland Cleaning Services lay oil retention booms in Bay St. Louis, Miss., Saturday, May 1, 2010. (AP Photo/ Hattiesburg American, Ryan Moore)
AP/Ryan Moore, Hattiesburg American
What began as a human tragedy, an oil rig explosion on April 20th that killed 11 workers, has morphed into an environmental calamity, reports CBS News correspondent Mark Strassmann.

A mile underwater, a leaking well bleeds an estimated 200,000 gallons of oil every day into the Gulf of Mexico.

A growing blob of oil, now the size of Jamaica, menaces five coastal states.

Special Section: Gulf Coast Oil Disaster
Oil Spill by the Numbers
Gulf Oil Spill Containment Efforts

"This isn't just about our coast. It's about our way of life," said Louisiana Governor Bobby Jindal.

Louisiana's coast IS Ron Price's way of life.

This fishing boat captain took us to where the land ends and the Gulf begins . . . Ground Zero for the approaching spill.

"Once it comes in contact, the whole fishery's dead," Price said. "The tourism's dead. The shrimping, the crabbing. Everything's wiped out. This is doomsday. Doomsday."

If that sounds like panic, there's a panicky feel to this emergency response. No one has a fix for the leaking well. The Obama White House is fighting with BP, the oil giant that leased the sunken rig and is responsible for making the response.

Interior Secretary Ken Salazar put it bluntly: "I pressed the CEO of BP as well as the engineers to work harder, faster and smarter to get the job done."

A river of oil now courses to the Gulf's surface. Various estimates say between two million and nine million gallons have leaked so far, with no end in sight.

Over the next 72 hours, landfall could come in Louisiana, Mississippi or Alabama.

"They haven't stopped that leak yet," said Price. "It would have been bad enough if the oil leak had stopped and the oil was still floating around. I wouldn't feel near as bad. Knowing it's still dumping five thousand barrels a day, it's gotta go somewhere."

That "somewhere" could be Louisiana's coast, home to some of the world's premiere fishing areas and 400 species of wildlife.

Eventually this spill could approach - even dwarf - the Exxon Valdez, the most notorious oil disaster in U.S. history. In 1989, 11 million gallons were dumped into Alaska's Prince William Sound.

But after Katrina, Louisiana's coastline - and psyche - are both more fragile and complicated.

"The oil industry is constantly given free rein in Louisiana," said historian Douglas Brinkley. "It's been treated as a third world society out there in the Gulf of Mexico; it's almost laughed at by oil executives - 'You can do what you want in the Gulf.' "

"Drill, Baby, Dri- . . . Oh, Wait"

Until last week, drilling in the Gulf of Mexico had been catastrophe-free for decades. Drilling here had a safety record so convincing that "drill, baby, drill" was supported by the facts, and most of the public, reports CBS News correspondent Wyatt Andrews.

And so in March President Obama opened up new offshore areas to drilling - in North Alaska, the Eastern Gulf of Mexico, and most of the Mid Atlantic. On Friday the president said the new leases can move forward, but that any new well must have the latest safety technology.

"We're going to make sure that any lease going forward has those safeguards," he said.

But that hasn't been enough for drilling opponents.

Sen. Bill Nelson of Florida wants all new drilling work stopped until the cause of the accident is known - and he drew a line in the Eastern Gulf: nothing closer to Florida, he said, than 125 miles.

"It's dead on arrival on any kind of additional closeness to the coast of Florida," Nelson said.

There are also new concerns, that the industry safety record did not extend to BP. The horrendous Texas City refinery explosion that killed 15 people in 2005 was BP's. The 6,000-gallon pipeline leak in Alaska in 2006 was BP's. And when both accidents were connected to corporate cost-cutting, executives promised better.

"We have fallen short of the high standards we hold for ourselves," said former chairman and president of BP America, Robert Malone, in 2006.

Last week's accident is different, because BP was leasing - not operating - the rig. But BP was in charge of the cleanup, and responsible for the claims the oil leak ("only" 1,000 barrels a day) was small.

"And is that, uh, suspicious that an oil company would try to minimize their concern about how much oil was being spilled?" asked Nelson.

The president travels later today to the disaster zone to see the extent of the oil spill and to check on the government's response.

The White House is rebuffing all suggestions that the administration waited too long to respond, saying the President and the Coast Guard were fully engaged from the beginning.

The Longest Wait

For fishermen like Kip Marquise in Venice, La., the spill could not have come at worse time:

"This is your one shot at work this season?" asked CBS News correspondent Michelle Miller.

"That's absolutely correct," said Marquise. "Other than this, we have no work."

Since the spill, the fishing industry has been all but shut down here. About one quarter of the fish harvested in the Continental United States comes from Gulf Coast waters.

"We should have started the cleanup while we were still watching that rig burn," said Billy Nungesser, the Plaquemine Parish president.

After days of watching Coast Guard and BP ships try . . . and fail . . . to contain the spill, fishermen are frustrated. Many have signed up to lend a hand in the effort.

"They bring in a lot of outside people that's never even been here before and don't know the waters as well as we do," said shrimper Waylan Buras.

The fishermen are hoping to get hired - and paid - by BP. Friday and Saturday, they received some training in how to clean up oil spills. Now they're waiting.

"They haven't called you? You haven't heard from them?" asked Miller.

"No," said Buras.

There are more than a hundred shrimp boats in the marine in Venice, but fishermen here say only one has been hired to help in the cleanup.

Attempts to contain the spill are continuing, but high winds and waves have washed many of the booms ashore already.

The oil is a thin sheen on the surface of the Gulf waters, about the thickness of a couple of nickels in some spots. The goal is to skim it off by laying out more booms in a triangle formation between one large ship and two smaller boats. So far about a million gallons have been skimmed off.

Aircraft are playing a role, too, spraying dispersant - a chemical used to break up the oil - on the huge slick that's floating in the Gulf.

But the slick is growing and there is little reason to be hopeful.

"If that oil slick comes in and gets into the marshlands, probably gonna kill all of the marshes and stuff," said fisherman Anthony Stipelcobich. "No telling how many of the animals are going to suffer really bad."

"People are worried about pelicans," said fisherman Kip Marquise. "What about the children? What about the wives? Pelicans are nice, but what about the people? That's what we're concerned about."