* Heavy oil washes into Louisiana marshland-governor
* Part of spill in "Loop Current," may spread far wider
* BP says it is trapping more oil from leaking well
* BP shares down nearly 2 percent in London
(Recasts, adds heavy oil in Louisiana marshlands)
By Matthew Bigg
VENICE, La., May 19 The first heavy oil from a
giant Gulf of Mexico spill sloshed ashore in fragile Louisiana
marshlands on Wednesday and part of the mess entered a powerful
current that could carry it to Florida and beyond.
The developments underscored the gravity of the situation
as British energy giant BP (BP.L) Plc raced to capture more
crude gushing from a ruptured well a mile (1.6 km) beneath the
surface. The spill is threatening an ecological and economic
disaster along the U.S. Gulf Coast and beyond.
"This wasn't tar balls. This wasn't sheen," Louisiana
Governor Bobby Jindal said after a boat tour to the
southernmost point of the Mississippi River estuary. "This is
heavy oil in our wetlands."
The marshes are the nurseries for shrimp, oysters, crabs
and fish that make Louisiana the leading producer of commercial
seafood in the continental United States and a top destination
for recreational anglers. The United States has already imposed
a large no-fishing zone in waters in the Gulf seen affected by
the spill. [ID:nN18155760]
TAKE A LOOK on the spill [ID:nSPILL]
INSIDER TV: link.reuters.com/wuw64k
Breakingviews column [ID:nLDE64C1D1]
Meanwhile, the U.S. government's top weather forecaster
said a "small portion" of light sheen from the giant oil slick
has already entered the Loop Current, which could carry the oil
down to the Florida Keys, to Cuba and even up the U.S. East
BP, its reputation on the line in an environmental disaster
that could eclipse the 1989 Exxon Valdez spill in Alaska, has
marked some progress at siphoning some of the oil from the
well, which ruptured after an April 20 explosion of the
Deepwater Horizon rig that killed 11 workers.
BP said it is now siphoning about 3,000 barrels (126,000
gallons/477,000 liters) a day of oil, out of what the company
estimated was a 5,000 barrels (210,000 gallons/795,000 liters)
a day gusher. And BP could begin injecting mud into the well as
early as Sunday in a bid to permanently plug the leak.
'NOT ROCKET SCIENCE'
A U.S. congressional panel heard testimony from experts who
said the spill rate could be many-fold larger.
"This is not rocket science," said Steve Wereley, associate
mechanical engineering professor at Purdue University, who
pegged the spill's volume at about 70,000 barrels per day. "All
outside estimates are considerably higher than BP's."
The development may still be welcome news for the company
and its battered share price. BP shares closed down nearly 2
percent in London on Wednesday, extending recent steep losses.
The political fall-out also continues. The U.S. Interior
Department said on Wednesday its embattled Minerals Management
Service will be broken up into three separate divisions, as
part of an effort to restructure the way the department handles
offshore energy production. [ID:nN19223644]
Florida's tourism gained a respite when tar balls found on
Keys beaches were shown not to come from the Gulf of Mexico oil
leak, but officials said the $60 billion-a-year industry was
already taking a beating from the month-old spill.
To the relief of Florida officials, the Coast Guard said
laboratory tests had shown that 50 tar balls found this week on
the Lower Keys -- a mecca for divers, snorkelers, fishermen and
beach goers -- were not from the Gulf spill.
Local tourism authorities said damage had already been
inflicted by the negative publicity linked to the spill.
"Even if we don't get even a gumball-sized tar ball down
here in the next month, there has already been significant
perception damage to Florida Keys and Florida tourism," said
Andy Newman of the Monroe Tourism Development Council.
"We understand we are not out of the woods yet, that
there's more oil out there," he said.
Tar balls have also been found on the Texas coast and were
being tested but a Coast Guard official said it was "highly
unlikely those tar balls in Texas are related to this spill."
The spill has also prompted rare talks between U.S. and
Cuban officials in Havana, with forecasters predicting that oil
could reach Cuban shores. [ID:nN19218031]
Wildlife and environmental groups accused BP of holding
back information on the real size and impact of the growing
slick, and urged President Barack Obama to order a more direct
federal government role in the spill response.
In prepared testimony for a congressional committee,
National Wildlife Federation President Larry Schweiger said BP
had failed to disclose results from its tests of chemical
dispersants used on the spill. He also said it had tried to
withhold video showing the true magnitude of the leak.
"The federal government should immediately take over all
environmental monitoring, testing and public safety protection
from BP," he said. "The Gulf of Mexico is a crime scene and the
perpetrator cannot be left in charge of assessing the damage."
The Washington-based Center for American Progress published
comments by its health experts Lesley Russell and Ellen-Marie
Whelan saying the huge spill, and the dispersants being used
against it, posed "insidious and unknown" human risks.
Noting the federal government had allowed BP to test the
undersea use of dispersants, they added, "But are we letting
the fox guard the hen house by letting the oil companies
determine the safety of these cleaning agents?"
The spill has forced Obama to put a hold on plans to expand
offshore oil drilling and has raised concerns about planned oil
operations in other areas like the Arctic. [ID:nN19224303]
(Additional reporting by Deborah Zabarenko in Washington,
Jane Sutton and Pascal Fletcher in Miami, Matthew Bigg in
Louisiana, and Anna Driver, Chris Baltimore and Jeff Mason in
Houston; Writing by Ed Stoddard and Pascal Fletcher; Editing by