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 75 more 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.
Already some of the richest fishing grounds of the gulf are off-limits, idling thousands of commercial boats. Some restaurants in New Orleans and elsewhere are out of homegrown oysters or are down to less than a week's supply.
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In Mississippi, charter boats and hotels are reporting declines in business.
"It's going to be unbelievably bad," said Jeremy Jackson, a professor of oceanography at the Scripps Institution of Oceanography in La Jolla, near San Diego. "This is a problem that won't go away for a decade."
The prospects are unsettling for residents.
Ryan LaFontaine, a spokesman for the city of Gulfport, Miss., said gulf leaders were in almost constant contact with federal and BP officials.
Besides putting out booms, which everyone agrees won't work in anything but the lightest chop in shallow water, LaFontaine said no one seemed to have much advice.
"The best protection right now, aside from booms and underwater fencing or everybody linking hands along the beach and trying to blow the oil back out, is to get this thing shut off," LaFontaine said. "Just stop it. That's the protection we need."
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 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 tourism industry, with 80 million visitors drawn yearly to its pristine beaches.
A growing slick could cut into the commercial fishing industry, too.
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 are important habitat for birds, shrimp and many other forms of life.
There's still hope that a new strategy will work. BP failed over the weekend to get a 78-ton cofferdam over the leaking pipe. This week it plans to try what's been called a "top hat," a smaller device treated with hot water and a solvent that would capture the oil so that it could be pumped to a barge. Another possibility is the "junk shot," using shredded tires, golf balls and knotted rope to clog the leak.
Meanwhile, thousands of workers kept up efforts to hold the spill back from land: spraying chemical dispersants, skimming, laying booms and burning oil on the surface.
Nasty mess in Panama
Jackson, however, thinks it's highly likely the oil will hit, and that's something he's seen up close. He was in charge of the Smithsonian Tropical Research Institute in Panama in 1986 when a tank ruptured at a refinery.
"What we learned was never, ever let oil get into a mangrove coast. ... It's like a sponge you rub on a greasy bacon pan. You need very hot water and a lot of soap, and you still might just give up and throw away the sponge."
Sen. Bill Nelson, D-Fla., an opponent of offshore drilling, said it would be his "worst nightmare" if the oil flowed for nearly three months more until the relief well was complete.
"It's going to cover up the Gulf Coast, and the wind is eventually going to keep it going south, and it's going to get into the Loop Current, and the Loop Current comes south and comes through the Florida Keys, where 85 percent of the live coral reefs in the country are," Nelson said.
"We're talking about massive economic loss to our tourism, our beaches, our fisheries, and very possibly the disruption of our country's military testing and training in the eastern gulf," he said.
The Florida Restaurant and Lodging Association was putting out the word that everything was fine: Beaches are clean, charter fishing boats are running, seafood is safe. Likewise, the Louisiana Seafood Promotion and Marketing Board said officials would monitor the waters and close contaminated areas, but that seafood in stores was safe.
"What it will mean long term is hard to say," because it's impossible to predict how the damage now to organisms such as blue crab larvae will affect future populations, said Nancy Rabalais, the executive director of the Louisiana Universities Marine Consortium.
Hard on small creatures
"Anything that's trying to live in that upper water column is being exposed to highly toxic contaminants," she said. Small creatures "would definitely be affected," including the shrimp, blue crab and fish larvae that are in the gulf now.
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.