Gulf oil spill hits Day 40 with no end in sight

NEW ORLEANS/VENICE, La. Sat May 29, 2010 10:40am IST

U.S. President Barack Obama survey damage along the Louisiana coastline at Fourchon Beach caused after a BP oil line ruptured in the Gulf of Mexico, May 28, 2010.  REUTERS/Larry Downing

U.S. President Barack Obama survey damage along the Louisiana coastline at Fourchon Beach caused after a BP oil line ruptured in the Gulf of Mexico, May 28, 2010.

Credit: Reuters/Larry Downing

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NEW ORLEANS/VENICE, La. (Reuters) - The worst oil spill in U.S. history hits its 40th day on Saturday with Gulf residents clinging to one tenuous hope: that BP's complicated "top kill" operation will plug the gushing well.

Beleaguered Louisiana residents heard from President Barack Obama and BP CEO Tony Hayward on separate visits to the Gulf coast on Friday as they tried to get a handle on a crisis damaging the credibility of both the government and BP.

Obama, facing criticism that he responded too slowly to the environmental catastrophe in the Gulf of Mexico, assured Louisianians during his five-hour visit that they "will not be left behind" and that the "buck stops" with him.

Hayward, on a visit to the site of the April 20 rig explosion that killed 11 workers and unleashed the oil, said the energy giant needed up to two more days to determine if the top kill will stop the underwater gusher once and for all.

The top kill, however, is a tricky maneuver that involves injecting heavy fluids, material and cement into the well to stifle the flow. It has never been done at this depth, one mile (1.6 km) under below sea level.

Hayward dismissed concerns about delays, which made investors jittery and drove BP shares down 5 percent Friday.

"We're continuing because we are making progress," Hayward said on a drilling ship at the site, with perspiration dripping from under a white plastic BP safety hat.

Obama is caught in a tight spot: there is not much he can do about the well other than apply pressure to BP to get it right and put his best scientists in the room. The government has no deep-sea oil technology of its own.

That fact is not lost on the people of Louisiana's coast, a hub of the U.S. oil industry and now the site of the country's largest oil spill after it surpassed the 1989 Exxon Valdez disaster in Alaskan waters.

'WANT OUR BEACH BACK'

"I wouldn't know what to ask him to do, other than stop the leak," said John Bourg, a resident of Grand Isle who watched the president's motorcade roar by on Friday. "And I'd put more faith in an oil company to stop a leak than anybody else."

But that doesn't mean the public will forgive the first-term president, who is anxious to avoid comparisons to President George W. Bush after his government's much-criticized response to Hurricane Katrina in 2005.

Polls show that Americans are losing faith in the Obama's administration's response to the spill as oil seeps farther into fragile marshlands and shuts down a good chunk of the lucrative fishing industry.

Still, BP gets worse marks and faces anger over lack of proper clean-up of the 100 miles (160 km) of Louisiana coastline and the oil in the gulf.

In Grand Isle, 17-year old Hanna Lemoie posted a sign she painted that read "BP...we want our beach back."

"The beach, the waves had like orange oil coming in and it made me mad because there was nobody cleaning it up and I felt helpless," Lemoie said.

The frustration, the anger and the delays all were taking their toll -- on Obama, Hayward, the residents and those working to plug the well.

Bruce Simokat, the captain of the Discoverer Enterprise drill ship assisting in the BP containment effort, said the crew found it difficult to hear all the criticism about the response effort on television.

But were they still watching the TV?

"It's hard not to," said Simokat.

(Additional reporting by Katharine Jackson in Grand Isle, Louisiana; Writing by Mary Milliken; Editing by Bill Trott)

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