NEW ORLEANS — The gooey oil washing into the maze of marshes along the Gulf Coast could prove impossible to remove, leaving a toxic stew lethal to fish and wildlife, government officials and independent scientists said.
Officials are considering some drastic and risky solutions: They could set the wetlands on fire or flood areas in hopes of floating out the oil.
But they warn an aggressive cleanup could ruin the marshes and do more harm than good. The only viable option for many impacted areas is to do nothing and let nature break down the spill.
More than 50 miles of Louisiana's delicate shoreline already have been soiled by the massive slick unleashed after BP's Deepwater Horizon burned and sank last month. Officials fear oil eventually could invade wetlands and beaches from Texas to Florida. Louisiana is expected to be hit hardest.
Plaquemines Parish officials on Louisiana's coast discovered a major pelican rookery awash in oil on Saturday. Hundreds of birds nest on the island, and an Associated Press photographer saw that at least some birds and their eggs were stained with the ooze. Nests were perched in mangroves directly above patches of crude.
"Oil in the marshes is the worst-case scenario," said Coast Guard Adm. Thad Allen, the head of the federal effort to contain and clean up the spill.
Oil that has rolled into shoreline wetlands coats the stalks and leaves of plants such as roseau cane — the fabric that holds together an ecosystem that is essential to the region's fishing industry and a much-needed buffer against gulf hurricanes. Soon, oil will smother those plants and choke off their supply of air and nutrients.
With the leak still gushing hundreds of thousands of gallons a day, the damage is only getting worse. Millions of gallons already have leaked.
Coast Guard officials said Saturday that the spill's impact now stretches across a 150-mile swath, from Dauphin Island, Ala., to Grand Isle, La.
Over time, experts say weather and natural microbes will break down most of the oil. However, the crude will surely poison plants and wildlife in the months — even years — it will take for the syrupy muck to dissipate.
Representatives from BP, which leased the sunken rig and is responsible for the cleanup, said Saturday that cleanup crews have started more direct cleanup methods along Pass a Loutre in Plaquemines Parish. Shallow water skimmers were attempting to remove the oil from the top of the marsh.
Streams of water could later be used in a bid to wash oil from between cane stalks.
In other cases, the company will rely on "bioremediation" — letting oil-eating microbes do the work.