WASHINGTON — With a quick solution ominously uncertain, the oil spill in the Gulf of Mexico is on track to become an unprecedented economic and environmental disaster with millions of gallons of oil destroying an ecosystem as well as a way of life.
BP America said Monday that it would take another 75 days to finish one of two relief wells it's drilling to shut down the flow. By then, if the spill doesn't worsen and the relief well stops the leak, some 20 million gallons of oil will be swirling in the gulf, nearly double the Exxon Valdez spill in 1989.
Unlike the Alaska spill, which coated a rock-strewn bay, BP's oil will cling to a spongelike coast, entering the pores of mangrove forests and sea grass beds and the breeding grounds for crabs, shrimp and oysters.
"It's going to be unbelievably bad," said Jeremy Jackson, a professor of oceanography at the Scripps Institution of Oceanography in La Jolla, Calif. "This is a problem that won't go away for a decade."
Further, whatever happens in the gulf could spread.
Scientists say they can't predict more than a few days in advance where the oil is heading.
If it slips into the powerful loop current, it could spread toward South Florida, get picked up by the Gulf Stream and head up the East Coast before it turns at Cape Hatteras, N.C., toward the open sea.
That could prove disastrous for Florida's enormous tourism industry, with 80 million visitors drawn yearly to its pristine beaches.
A growing slick could cut into a commercial fishing industry that produced about 1.27 billion pounds of fish and shellfish in 2008 with a dockside value of more than $659 million, according to the Gulf of Mexico Fishery Management Council.
Beyond that, more than 3.2 million people fish for fun in the gulf each year.
Damage to the wetlands could cost society billions of dollars in lost natural filtration of water and protection of property from storm surges. The coastal areas also are important habitat for birds, shrimp and many other forms of life.
The gulf's coastal sea grass beds and mangroves are full of burrowing animals that make millions of holes. Oil works its way out of the holes eventually and then storms flush it back into the water, creating what amounts to a new spill.
Another concern is the possibility that the spill will get much worse. If the wellhead gave way entirely, the amount of oil would increase greatly, said Larry McKinney, the executive director of the Harte Research Institute for Gulf of Mexico Studies at Texas A&M University at Corpus Christi.
When storms blow up — hurricane season begins June 1 — the oil will be driven into the marshes and "then the problem will build up more and more, because you just can't stop it," McKinney said.