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Black tide threatens fishing towns

Craig McMurtrie - ABC News

A black tide is washing up on the coast of Louisiana as US authorities assess the environmental and economic damage that could follow from an oil spill in the Gulf of Mexico.

Traces of the oil are reported to have started washing ashore in Louisiana and there are fears it will become one of the worst environmental disasters on record.

The oil began leaking last week when a damaged pipe from a BP rig exploded and sank, killing 11 people.

Residents along the Louisiana coastline are angry and concerned that the oil will destroy wildlife habitats and create havoc for fishing villages.

US defence secretary Robert Gates is considering a request from Louisiana's Governor for funds to pay for the deployment of up to 6,000 National Guard troops to respond to the oil slick.

All along the coast, fishermen are watching anxiously as the pervading wind continues to push the slick toward the coast.

In Mississippi, on the gulf coast fishing harbour of Pass Christian, it is the last day of the oyster season.

Returning boat captains say they have not seen it yet but they can smell the oil, and as the south-easterly wind holds and the choppy water continues, they expect the oil slick could reach their fisheries and beaches in the next 24 to 36 hours.

The shrimp season is supposed to begin in a few weeks, but owners are not sure if it is worth preparing their boats.

Many are saying that Washington has been too slow to respond to the oil spill. They say if the slick comes the shrimp season will be over before it begins.

Tracy Coons is the head of a Louisiana conservation group and she says it is extremely concerned about the impact the oil might have.

"It's a wide open marshy estuary is what it is," she said.

"It's just riddled with bayous and bays and lakes and it's just so open that if this oil starts coming in towards our estuary, it's going to be almost impossible to control it, to stop it."

Heat on BP

British energy giant BP says it will pay for legitimate claims stemming from the disaster and will take full responsibility for the cost of the clean-up.

There is speculation that the oil spill could match that of the Exxon Valdez tanker off Alaska in 1989 - the worst oil accident in American history.

The head of US Homeland Security, Janet Napolitano, has urged BP to commit more resources to deal with the oil spill.

A lawyer representing a group of Louisiana shrimpers, Richard Arsenault, says they have filed a class action lawsuit against BP and the owners of the rig.

"All of our clients are sitting on pins and needles. This is the way they make their living and they're understandably very troubled about what the future holds for them," he said.

"But no one has a crystal ball to know how much of this oil is going to be spewing. Reports are at 5,000 barrels a day and maybe more.

"At that rate we're looking at a disaster that could be significantly greater than what we saw with the Exxon Valdez."

The Governor of Louisiana, Bobby Jindal, says he is concerned that BP is not doing enough.

"These next few days are critical, that's why we must do everything necessary, everything possible to protect our coast," he said.

"BP's current resources are not adequate to meet the three challenges we face. I've urged them to seek even more help from the federal government.

"The three challenges we face are stopping the leak, protecting coast, preparations for a swift clean-up of our impacted areas."

BP's chief operating officer, Doug Suttles, says the company has been struggling to handle an unprecedented emergency.

"We have so far mounted the largest response effort ever done in the world," he said.

"We have utilised every technology available. We've applied every resource requested.

"We continue to try to stop the source of flow. We continue to develop new options, both to address the continued flow of oil at the seabed, but also to minimise the impact to the environment."