US threatens to take control of BP spill

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The US government threatened to take over the response to a massive oil slick Sunday as pressure mounted on BP to get control of the month-old environmental disaster.

"If we find that they're not doing what they're supposed to be doing, we'll push them out of the way," said Interior Secretary Ken Salazar.

Salazar insisted that the full force of the federal government was bearing down on BP, which is legally responsible for dealing with a ruptured pipe that has been gushing oil into the Gulf of Mexico from the wreckage of an offshore rig since April 22.

He lashed out at BP for missing "deadline after deadline" as its latest attempt to cap the leak was hit with further delays.

"I have no question that BP is throwing everything at the problem to try to resolve it because this is an existential crisis for one of the world's largest companies," Salazar told reporters.

"Do I have confidence that they know exactly what they're doing? No not completely."

Salazar's comments came as President Barack Obama's administration came under increasing pressure for its response to the crisis amid accusations of lax supervision of the lucrative offshore oil drilling industry.

Louisiana Governor Bobby Jindal demanded "a greater sense of urgency and a quicker turnaround time" in responding to the oil lapping up on beaches and coating fragile coastal wetlands.

Jindal lambasted the Coast Guard, which is overseeing the response, for failing to deliver and lay out enough protective boom despite repeated requests from local officials who have been forced to "fill the current void in response efforts."

"We met today to take action, take matters into our own hands," a frustrated Jindal told reporters in the coastal port of Venice. "We know we've got to do that if we're going to win this fight and protect our coast."

A local emergency manager commandeered all 40 boom-laying boats hired by BP which were sitting idly at Grand Isle as oil sloshed onto beaches on Saturday night.

Residents and officials in neighboring Plaquemines Parish headed out in their own boats Sunday to lay protective booms around a bird sanctuary threatened by a black tide.

"We're going out to Cat Island right now where a thousand pelicans are breeding," Billy Nungesser, president of the coastal Plaquemines told AFP Sunday morning.

Some of the birds at the island sanctuary have already been coated in oil and have carried it back to their nests, he said.

While they're not trying to rescue the oiled birds for fear of doing more harm than good, Nungesser said local residents refused to stand idly by as more oil lapped up onto the nesting grounds.

"Our crews are out there laying the absorbent boom," he said, adding that he couldn't understand why BP and the Coast Guard weren't doing more to protect his coastal parish.

Coast Guard Admiral Mary Landry acknowledged that the response had lagged, and told reporters she has called BP to task for failing to make sure boats don't sit idle if there's work to be done.

"There's really no excuse for not having constant activity," Landry said in a conference call.

"That was my first issue we've had with BP over the past few days and we've directed them to improve and they have."

But efforts to clean up the mess are stymied by the fact that the slick is still growing.

Initially scheduled to begin on Sunday, BP's latest attempt to plug a leak in the ruptured pipe 5,000 feet (1,500 meters) below the surface, the "top kill", is not expected to get under way until Wednesday at the earliest.

As crews used robotic submarines to position equipment to inject heavy drilling fluids into the well and then seal it with cement, the amount of oil being suctioned up by a mile-long insertion tube slowed to 1,360 barrels a day from the previous average of about 2,100.

"It really depends largely on the mix between oil and gas," BP spokesman Graham MacEwan told AFP. "It's not a constant flow so it will fluctuate over time."

And while a fleet of skimmers did its best to contain the huge slick which has spread across the Gulf and begun to creep towards Florida, oil washed past protective booms, sullying 66 miles (106 km) of Louisiana's coastline.

Just how much oil is still gushing from the rig's wreckage has also been a major point of contention, with BP initially putting the figure at 5,000 barrels, or 210,000 gallons, a day.

Independent experts have estimated that the flow from the two leaks could be as high as 120,000 barrels per day.

Even at the lowest estimates, more than six million gallons of crude have entered Gulf waters.

The federal government has called in top US scientists to work on an accurate estimate on the flow rate out of the ruptured pipe and the actual size of the slick with results expected sometime this week.

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