The edge of a massive oil spill in the Gulf of Mexico was expected to reach the Mississippi River delta by Thursday night and a new technique to break up the oil a mile underwater could be tried, officials said.
As of this morning, part of the slick was about 3 miles from the Louisiana shore, said National Oceanic Atmospheric Administration spokesman Charles Henry said. It's too late to stop some of the spill from reaching the coast, but BP PLC said it might attempt to break up some of the oil spewing from a blown-out a mile under water.
The company also has asked the Department of Defense if it can help with better underwater equipment than is available commercially, said BP PLC chief operating officer Doug Suttles.
In addition, he said the company has been reviewing research on using chemical to break up the oil, which has been done before, but never at these depths. The well is almost a mile underwater off the Louisiana shore.
U.S. Coast Guard Rear Adm. Mary Landry called it "a novel, absolutely novel idea."
Meanwhile, Louisiana Louisiana Gov. Bobby Jindal declared a state of emergency and announced that BP had agreed to allow local fishermen to assist in the expected cleanup. Under the agreement, shrimpers and fishermen could be contracted by BP to help. Jindal said the state was also training prison inmates to help clean up wildlife harmed by oil slicks moving toward shore.
The federal government sent in skimmers and booms Thursday. BP operated the rig that exploded and sank 50 miles offshore last week, which led to the spill, and is directing the cleanup and trying to stop the leak.
If the chemical technique is approved, work could start tonight, Suttles said.
"We want to pursue every technique we can find," he said.
Coast Guard Rear Adm. Sally Brice-O'Hara said at the White House that the government's priority was to support BP as it fights to hold back the oil surging from the seabed in amounts much higher than previously estimated.
BP was operating the Deepwater Horizon, which was drilling in 5,000 feet of water about 40 miles offshore when it exploded last week. Eleven crew members are missing and presumed dead, and the government says 5,000 barrels of oil a day are spewing from the well underneath it.
Those who count on the Gulf for their livelihoods fretted about the oil that will reach the coast soon.
In Empire, La., Frank and Mitch Jurisich could smell the oil coming from just beyond the murky water where their family has harvested oysters for three generations.
"About 30 minutes ago we started smelling it," Mitch Jurisich said. "That's when you know it's getting close and it hits you right here."
They spent Thursday hauling in enough oysters to fill more than 100 burlap sacks, stopping to eat some because it might be their last chance before oil contaminates them.
President Barack Obama has dispatched Homeland Security Secretary Janet Napolitano, Interior Secretary Ken Salazar and Environmental Protection Agency administrator Lisa Jackson to help with the spill. The president said his administration will use "every single available resource at our disposal" to respond.
Obama directed officials to aggressively confront the spill, but the cost of the cleanup will fall on BP, spokesman Nick Shapiro said.
A third leak at the well site was discovered Wednesday, and government officials said the amount coming out is five times as much as originally estimated.
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.