NEW ORLEANS - Heavy, sticky oil from a massive monthlong spill was starting to clog Louisiana marshes on the Gulf of Mexico as another edge of the partly submerged crude reached a powerful current that could take it to Florida and beyond.
Brown ooze that coated marsh grasses and hung in the shallow water of a wetland at Louisiana's southeastern tip was the first heavy oil seen on shore since a BP seafloor well blew out following an April 20 rig explosion. Gov. Bobby Jindal declared Wednesday it was just the outer edge of the real spill, much heavier than the oily sheen seen before.
"This is the heavy oil that everyone's been fearing that is here now," Jindal said during a boat tour. The wetlands at the mouth of the Mississippi are home to rare birds, mammals and a wide variety of marine life.
BP PLC was marshaling equipment and conducting tests Thursday ahead of a new effort to choke off the oil's flow. Crews hoped that by Sunday they can start the "top kill," which involves pumping heavy mud into the crippled equipment on top of the well, then permanently sealing it with cement.
The procedure has been used before to halt gushing oil above ground, but like other methods BP is exploring it has never been used 5,000 feet below the sea. That's why scientists and engineers have spent much of the last week preparing for the complex operation and taking a series of measurements to make sure that the mission doesn't backfire.
"The philosophy from the beginning is not to take any action which could make the situation worse, and those are the final steps we're doing," said Doug Suttles, BP's chief operating officer.
The National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration said Wednesday that a small portion of the slick had entered the so-called loop current, a stream of faster moving water that circulates around the Gulf before bending around Florida and up the Atlantic coast. Its arrival may portend a wider environmental catastrophe affecting the Florida Keys and tourist-dotted beaches along that state's east coast.
Tracking the unpredictable spill and the complex loop current is a challenge for scientists, said Charlie Henry, a NOAA environmental scientist.
The loop moves based on the shifting winds and other environmental factors, so even though the oil is leaking continuously it may be in the current one day, and out the next. And the slick itself has defied scientists' efforts to track it and predict its path. Instead, it has repeatedly advanced and retreated, an ominous, shape-shifting mass in the Gulf, with vast underwater lobes extending outward.
Even farther south, U.S. officials were talking to Cuba about how to respond to the spill should it reach the island's northern coast, a U.S. State Department spokesman said.
Florida's state meteorologist said it will be at least another seven days before the oil reaches waters west of the Keys, and state officials sought to reassure visitors that its beaches are still clean and safe. During a news conference, David Halstead, the director of the Florida Division of Emergency Management, showed off a picture of a Coppertone bottle on a beach.
"What's the only oil on the beaches? Suntan oil," Halstead said.
Tar balls found earlier in the Florida Keys were not from the spill, the Coast Guard said Wednesday. Still, at least 6 million gallons have already poured into the Gulf off Louisiana since the rig explosion that killed 11 workers and led to the spill, the worst U.S. environmental disaster in decades. The Exxon Valdez tanker spilled 11 million gallons in Alaska in 1989.
Rep. Edward J. Markey, D-Mass., said in a news release that BP complied with his request that a live feed of the oil spill be made publicly available on the Web. Markey said it would start Wednesday night on his website.
U.S. Secretary of the Interior Ken Salazar said the government has access to that live video and scientists will be using it along with satellite imagery to check estimates from early on in the disaster that about 210,000 gallons a day was spewing into the ocean.
"The government will be making its own, independent verification of what those total numbers are," Salazar said on the CBS "Early Show" Thursday.
Greenpeace activists scaled BP's London headquarters Thursday to hang a flag accusing the oil company of polluting the environment. The group said the action was prompted by the Gulf of Mexico oil spill as well as a controversial project in Canada.
BP spokesman Robert Wine called the action "a very calm and genteel protest," and said no employees had been prevented from getting to work.
In Washington, environmental groups criticized how BP PLC has handled the response since the rig Deepwater Horizon exploded and sank, and urged the government to take to take greater control of the situation.
"Too much information is now in the hands of BP's many lawyers and too little is being disclosed to the public," Larry Schweiger, president of the National Wildlife Federation, told the House Transportation and Infrastructure Committee. "The Gulf of Mexico is a crime scene and the perpetrator cannot be left in charge of assessing the damage."
BP has received thousands of ideas from the public on how to stop the oil gusher, but some inventors are complaining that their efforts are being ignored.
Oil-eating bacteria, bombs and a device that resembles a giant shower curtain are among the 10,000 fixes people have proposed to counter the growing environmental threat. BP is taking a closer look at 700 of the ideas, but the oil company has yet to use any of them.
"They're clearly out of ideas, and there's a whole world of people willing to do this free of charge," said Dwayne Spradlin, CEO of InnoCentive Inc., which has created an online network of experts to solve problems.
BP spokesman Mark Salt said the company wants the public's help, but that considering proposed fixes takes time.
"They're taking bits of ideas from lots of places," Salt said. "This is not just a PR stunt."
BP succeeded in partially siphoning away the leak over the weekend, when it hooked up a mile-long tube to the broken pipe, sending some of the oil to a ship on the surface. And the company said Wednesday it hopes to begin shooting a mixture known as drilling mud into the blown-out well by Sunday.
The "top kill" method involves directing heavy mud into crippled equipment on top of the well, then aiming cement at it to permanently keep down the oil. Even if it works, it could take several weeks to complete.
If it fails, BP is considering a "junk shot," which involves shooting knotted rope, pieces of tires and golf balls into the blowout preventer. Crews hope they will lodge into the nooks and crannies of the device to plug it.
About 70 BP workers are taking more suggestions at a tip line center in Houston. The company plans to test one idea from Kevin Costner, the "Waterworld" and "Field of Dreams" actor who has invested more than $24 million on developing a centrifuge that can be dropped into the slick and separate the water from oil, storing the petroleum in tanks.
"It's like a big vacuum cleaner," said Costner's business partner, John Houghtaling II of New Orleans, "These machines are ready to be employed. The technology is familiar to the industry."