The Coast Guard said late Wednesday that a new leak has been found at the site where an oil rig exploded and sank in the Gulf of Mexico.
Rear Adm. Mary Landry says that 5,000 barrels a day are now estimated to be leaking, meaning 210,000 gallons are spilling into the gulf. Officials had been saying for days that it was 42,000 gallons.
As the oil slick grew larger than the state of West Virginia, Coast Guard and oil company officials set fire to a 500-foot section in hopes of getting rid of some of the slick.
If the one-hour burn works — and officials should know today if it did — they will torch more of the slick in coming days.
Environmental activists, comparing it to a famous 1969 incident in which a polluted Ohio river caught fire, dubbed the experiment "Obama's Cuyahoga."
Meanwhile, an air of inevitability has settled in — a sense that the question about the oil reaching marshes and beaches is no longer if, but when. Experts from the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration said the oil is likely to hit Louisiana on Friday night.
Gulf winds have pushed the slick farther from Florida's coastline, said Mike Sole, secretary of the Florida Department of Environmental Protection. On Tuesday it was 89 miles from Pensacola, and by Wednesday it was 127 miles. But that's no reason to celebrate, he said.
"If the winds shift again, Florida could easily be the target," Sole said.
Worried Louisiana officials have already begun lining passes with boom lines to contain oil.
But some parts of the swampy coastline will be impossible to protect, said NOAA ecologist Tom Minello. Once it hits those mangroves, he said, "it'll just kill all the vegetation. It's years before it will recover. The stuff's pretty toxic, and it will kill all the growth that supports the shrimp and crabs," hurting a seafood industry that's still recovering from Hurricane Katrina.
While noting he wouldn't want oil to hit any of Florida's coast, Sole said it would be easier cleaning it off of a beach than scrubbing sensitive estuaries. The only way to get oil out of a contaminated marsh, he said, "is to burn the marsh."
Landry said federal officials are working with officials from Florida, Alabama and Mississippi "to prepare for a potential impact on their shoreline" from a slick now covering an area about 100 miles long and 45 miles wide at its widest point. Fishermen and other coastal residents monitoring the spill's direction and speed compared it to watching a slow-moving hurricane roll across the gulf. Landry said the government has offered to have the Department of Defense help contain the spill.
Republican U.S. Rep. C.W. Bill Young and Democratic U.S. Rep. Kathy Castor joined forces to send President Obama a letter urging him to drop plans to expand drilling in the eastern gulf.
Incoming state Senate President Mike Haridopolos, who has supported allowing rigs 3 miles from shore, said the spill gives him "great pause." He promised that he and incoming House Speaker Dean Cannon, until recently another proponent of drilling near Florida's shore, will spend the rest of the year figuring out what caused the disaster.
"Was it human error, was it sabotage or just the inherent risk of the operation?" he asked. "I don't know. I don't think anybody knows at this point."
In the face of so much uncertainty, rumors have begun to fly. The St. Petersburg Audubon Society trumpeted the discovery of dead birds on Pass-a-Grille Beach as a sign that the spill was already taking a toll on wildlife. However, state biologist Dan Wolf, who collected the 20 or so carcasses, said they appear to be migratory songbirds blown off-course by the weekend's storm.
The oil spill began April 20 as a fire burned aboard the Deepwater Horizon rig about 50 miles off Louisiana. Efforts to stanch the leaks so far have failed.
As a result of the accident, the U.S. Minerals Management Service announced it was postponing its annual oil industry safety awards ceremony, scheduled for May 3 in Houston.
Times/Herald Tallahassee bureau reporter Mary Ellen Klas contributed to this report, which contains information from the Associated Press.