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 helicopter ride over the water to view the 30-mile oil slick caused by thousands of 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."
The government ordered a halt Sunday to fishing in areas affected by the ever-spreading oil spill in the Gulf of Mexico, a ban that covers waters from Louisiana to Florida and hinders the livelihoods of untold numbers of fishermen.
Citing public safety concerns, the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration restricted fishing for at least 10 days in the affected waters, largely between Louisiana state waters at the mouth of the Mississippi River to waters off Pensacola Bay in Florida. Scientists were taking samples of water and seafood to ensure food safety.
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 this depth.
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.
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.
Engineers struggling to find a way to halt the flow of oil to the surface were working along three paths:
• Breaking up the oil as it emerges from the pipes by injection of dispersants near the wellhead; early tests showed some success. But that would do nothing to stop the flow.
• Lowering a 40-foot-high, 74-ton dome to the sea floor where it would contain the gushing oil and allow it to be pumped to the surface and into tankers. That appeared to be the only short-term option. While BP says it may have a dome in place in six to eight days, positioning it would be tricky and has never been tried in such water depths.
• Drilling two relief wells several miles into the ocean floor, where the oil could be diverted. But that will take BP two to three months.
Information from the New York Times was used in this report.