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Oil spill proves tricky to contain

MOUTH OF THE MISSISSIPPI RIVER — High winds and choppy seas frustrated efforts to hold back the oil spill seeping into Louisiana's rich fishing grounds and nesting areas Friday, and the government desperately cast about for new ideas for dealing with the nation's biggest environmental crisis in decades.

President Obama, meanwhile, halted any new offshore drilling projects unless rigs have new safeguards to prevent a repeat of the disaster that was set in motion when an offshore platform exploded and sank 50 miles out in the Gulf of Mexico.

The mile-deep BP well continued to spew an estimated 200,000 gallons of crude a day. Many of the more than two dozen lawsuits filed in the wake of the explosion claim it was caused when workers for oil services contractor Halliburton Inc. improperly capped the well. Halliburton denied it.

The seas were too rough and the winds too strong Friday to burn off the oil, suck it up effectively with skimmer vessels, or hold it in check with the miles of orange-and-yellow inflatable booms strung along the coast.

The floating barriers broke loose in the choppy water, and waves sent oily water lapping over them.

"It just can't take the wave action," said Billy Nungesser, president of Louisiana's Plaquemines Parish.

The spill — a slick more than 130 miles long and 70 miles wide — threatens hundreds of species of wildlife, including birds, dolphins and the fish, shrimp, oysters and crabs that make the Gulf Coast one of the nation's most abundant sources of seafood. Louisiana closed some fishing grounds and oyster beds because of the risk of oil contamination.

Lawsuits filed this week, including one by an injured technician on the platform, claim that Halliburton improperly cemented the well. Cementing is a process in which a slurry is used to fill the gap between the drilled hole and the casing, or the pipe that brings oil and gas up out of the ground.

In a statement, Halliburton said workers had finished a cementing operation 20 hours before the rig went up in flames. But the company said it was "premature and irresponsible to speculate" on what caused the disaster.

According to a 2007 study by the federal Minerals Management Service, which examined the 39 rig blowouts in the Gulf of Mexico between 1992 and 2006, cementing was a contributing factor in 18 of the incidents. In all the cases, gas seepage occurred during or after cementing of the well casing, the MMS said.

At least 1.6 million gallons of oil have spilled, according to Coast Guard estimates.

Heavy oil offshore

As of Friday, only a sheen of oil from the edges of the slick was washing up at Venice, La., and other extreme southeastern portions of Louisiana. But several miles out, the normally blue-green gulf waters were dotted with sticky, pea- to quarter-sized brown beads with the consistency of tar.

High seas were in the forecast through Sunday and could push oil deep into the inlets, ponds, creeks and lakes that line the boot of southeastern Louisiana. With the wind blowing from the south, the mess could reach the Mississippi, Alabama and Florida coasts by Monday.

"These next few days are critical," Louisiana Gov. Bobby Jindal warned.

For days, crews have struggled without success to activate the well's underwater shutoff valve using remotely operated vehicles. They are also drilling a relief well in hopes of injecting mud and concrete to seal off the leak, but that could take three months.

At the rate the oil is pouring from the sea floor, the leak could eclipse the worst oil accident in U.S. history — the 11 million gallons that spilled from the supertanker Exxon Valdez off Alaska in 1989 — in just two months.

U.S. Interior Secretary Ken Salazar said he pressed the chief executive of BP to "work harder and faster and smarter to get the job done." He said the government will not rest until BP seals the well and "they clean up every drop of oil."

As for the cause of the accident, he said: "I am confident we will get to the bottom of what happened here. Those responsible will be held accountable."

An animal rescue operation at Fort Jackson, about 70 miles southeast of New Orleans, had its first patient Friday, a bird covered in thick black oil. The bird, a young northern gannett found offshore, is normally white with a yellow head.

Across the state line in Gulfport, Miss., scientists, veterinarians and researchers at the Institute for Marine Mammal Studies worked frantically to prepare for the possible arrival of hundreds of oily sea mammals. The institute has surgery and exam rooms, eight large pools, and X-ray and ultrasound equipment.

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