Oil soaks marshes, birds and nest sites

An oil-soaked pelican rests Sunday on an island in Barataria Bay just off the coast of Louisiana. The island, which is home to hundreds of brown pelican nests as well at terns, gulls and roseate spoonbills, is affected by oil from the Deepwater Horizon sp

Gerald Herbert

BARATARIA BAY, La. -- As officials approached to survey the damage the Gulf oil spill caused in coastal marshes, some brown pelicans couldn't fly away Sunday. All they could do was hobble.

Several pelicans were coated in oil in Barataria Bay off Louisiana, their usually brown and white feathers now jet black. Pelican eggs were glazed with rust-colored gunk, and new hatchlings and nests also were coated with crude.

It is unclear if the area can even be cleaned, or if the birds can be saved. It also is unknown how much of the Gulf Coast will end up looking the same way because of a well that has spewed untold millions of gallons of oil since an offshore rig exploded more than a month ago.

"As we talk, a total of more than 65 miles of our shoreline now has been oiled," said Louisiana Gov. Bobby Jindal, who announced new efforts to keep the spill from spreading.

With oil pushing at least 12 miles into Louisiana's marshes and two major pelican rookeries now coated in crude, Jindal said the state has begun work on a chain of berms, reinforced with containment booms, that would skirt the state's coastline.

Jindal, who visited one of the affected nesting grounds Sunday, said the berms would close the door on oil still pouring from a mile-deep gusher about 50 miles out in the Gulf. The berms would be made with sandbags and sand hauled in; the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers also is considering a broader plan that would use dredging to build sand berms across more of the barrier islands.

At least 6 million gallons of crude have spewed into the Gulf, though some scientists have said they think the spill already surpasses the 11 million-gallon 1989 Exxon Valdez oil spill off Alaska as the worst in U.S. history.

Obama administration officials continued defending their response while criticizing that of BP PLC, which leased the rig and is responsible for the cleanup. U.S. Interior Secretary Ken Salazar said he is "not completely" confident that BP knows what it's doing.

"If we find they're not doing what they're supposed to be doing, we'll push them out of the way appropriately," Salazar said. But federal officials have acknowledged that BP has expertise that they lack in stopping the deep-water leak.

Each day the spill grows, so does anger with the government and BP. U.S. Environmental Protection Agency chief Lisa P. Jackson was headed to Louisiana on Sunday, where she planned to visit with frustrated residents.

Salazar and Secretary of Homeland Security Janet Napolitano were to lead a Senate delegation to the region today to fly over affected areas and keep an eye on the response.

The leak may not be completely stopped until a relief well is dug, a project that could take months. Another effort that BP said will begin Tuesday at the earliest will shoot heavy mud, and then cement, into the blown well, but that method never has been attempted before in mile-deep water and engineers are not sure it will work.

The only thing that has kept leaking oil out of the Gulf so far is the mile-long tube siphoning oil from the well to a ship. BP spokesman John Curry told The Associated Press on Sunday that it siphoned some 57,120 gallons of oil within the past 24 hours, a sharp drop from the 92,400 gallons of oil a day that the device was sucking up on Friday.