VENICE, La. — The government has sent skimmers, booms and other resources to clean up a massive oil spill in the Gulf of Mexico that's become far worse than initially thought and threatens the fragile marshlands along the shore, a Coast Guard official said Thursday.
Coast Guard Rear Adm. Sally Brice O'Hare said at the White House that the government's priority was to support the oil company BP PLC in employing booms, skimmers, chemical dispersants and controlled burns to fight the oil surging from the seabed.
Homeland Security Secretary Janet Napolitano declared the slick "a spill of national significance," meaning the government is designating more forces to contain its spread toward the U.S. coastline. White House Press Secretary Robert Gibbs said President Obama has directed more people and equipment to the area to "aggressively confront" the spill.
An executive for BP PLC, which operated the oil rig that exploded and sank last week, said earlier in the day on NBC's "Today" that the company would welcome help from the U.S. military.
"We'll take help from anyone," said Doug Suttles, chief operating officer for BP Exploration and Production.
The Coast Guard has urged the company to formally request more resources from the Defense Department. Obama has dispatched Napolitano, Interior Secretary Ken Salazar and Environmental Protection Agency administrator Lisa Jackson to help with the spill.
But time may be running out: Oil from the spill had crept to within 12 miles of the coast, and it could reach shore as soon as Friday. A third leak was discovered, which government officials said is spewing five times as much oil into the water as originally estimated -- about 5,000 barrels a day coming from the blown-out well 40 miles offshore.
Suttles had initially disputed the government's estimate, and that the company was unable to handle the operation to contain it.
But early Thursday, he acknowledged on "Today" that the leak may be as bad as the government says. He said there was no way to measure the flow at the seabed and estimates have to come from how much oil makes it to the surface.
If the well cannot be closed, almost 100,000 barrels of oil, or 4.2 million gallons, could spill into the Gulf before crews can drill a relief well to alleviate the pressure. By comparison, the Exxon Valdez, the worst oil spill in U.S. history, leaked 11 million gallons into Alaska's Prince William Sound in 1989.
As dawn broke Thursday in the oil industry hub of Venice, about 75 miles from New Orleans and not far from the mouth of the Mississippi River, crews loaded an orange oil boom aboard a supply boat at Bud's Boat Launch. There, local officials expressed frustration with the pace of the government's response and the communication they were getting from the Coast Guard and BP officials.
"We're not doing everything we can do," said Billy Nungesser, president of Plaquemines Parish, which straddles the Mississippi River at the tip of Louisiana.
"Give us the worst-case scenario. How far inland is this supposed to go?" Nungesser said. He has suggested enlisting the local fishing fleet to spread booms to halt the oil, which threatens some of the nation's most fertile seafood grounds.
Louisiana has opened a special shrimp season along parts of the coast so shrimpers can harvest the profitable white shrimp before the spill has an effect.
Michael Nguyen, 58, was aboard his 82-foot shrimp boat, the Night Star III, waiting for news Thursday morning on what has happening with the slick. He wasn't panicking, but was clearly worried.
"The oil come in everywhere, the shrimp die, the crabs die, the fish die. What do I do? Stay home a long time?"
The spill has moved steadily toward the mouth of the Mississippi River and the wetland areas east of it, home to hundreds of species of wildlife and near some rich oyster grounds.
Plaquemines Parish oysterman Mitch Jurasich said by telephone from his boat that he and other crews are working around the clock to harvest as many oysters as possible.
"But we're fighting a losing effort. We've got an extreme amont of product in the water," he said.
A federal class-action lawsuit was filed late Wednesday over the oil spill on behalf of two commercial shrimpers from Louisiana, Acy J. Cooper Jr. and Ronnie Louis Anderson.
The suit seeks at least $5 million in compensatory damages plus an unspecified amount of punitive damages against Transocean, BP, Halliburton Energy Services Inc. and Cameron International Corp.
Jim Klick, a lawyer for Cooper and Anderson, said the oil spill already is disrupting the commercial shrimping industry.
"They should be preparing themselves for the upcoming shrimp season," he said. "Now they're very much concerned that the whole shrimp season is out."
Mike Brewer, 40, who lost his oil spill response company in the devastation of Hurricane Katrina nearly five years ago, said the area was accustomed to the occassional minor spill. But he feared the scale of the escaping oil was beyond the capacity of existing resources.
"You're pumping out a massive amount of oil. There is no way to stop it," he said.
The rig Deepwater Horizon sank a week ago after exploding two days earlier. Of its crew of 126, 11 are missing and presumed dead. The rig was owned by Transocean Ltd. and operated by BP. Coast Guard Rear Adm. Mary Landry said BP is responsible for bringing resources to shut off the flow and clean up the spill.
"It has become clear after several unsuccessful attempts to determine the cause" that agencies must supplement what's being done by the company, she said.
A fleet of boats working under an oil industry consortium has been using booms to corral and then skim oil from the surface.
Landry said a controlled test to burn the leaking oil was successful late Wednesday afternoon. BP was to set more fires after the test, but as night fell, there were no more burns. None were planned for Thursday as sea conditions deteriorated.
The decision to burn some of the oil came after crews operating submersible robots failed to activate a shut-off device that would halt the flow of oil on the sea bottom 5,000 feet below.
Adm. Mike Mullen, chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, was briefed Thursday morning on the issue, said his spokesman, Capt. John Kirby. But Kirby said the Defense Department has received no request for help, nor is it doing any detailed planning for any mission on the oil spill.
Back in Venice, some fishermen desperate to clear the oil so they can work volunteered to help with cleanup operations, even if their boats weren't adequately outfitted.
Hai Huynh, 39, and his 22-year-old deck hand Robert Huynh were ready to help however they could even though the Coast Guard will only allow vessels with lifeboats to help with carrying oil booms to contain the spill.
"We want to go out and help clean up the oil," Robert Huynh said aboard their freshly painted steel-hulled shrimp boat, the Miss Kimberly. "We're ready."
Associated Press writers Janet McConnaughey, Kevin McGill Michael Kunzelman and Brett Martel in New Orleans, Melinda Deslatte in Baton Rouge and Holbrook Mohr in Jackson, Miss., contributed to this report.