VENICE, La. — The surface area of a catastrophic Gulf of Mexico oil spill quickly tripled in size amid growing fears among experts that the slick could become vastly more devastating than it seemed just two days ago.
Frustrated fishermen eager to help contain the spill from a ruptured underwater well had to keep their boats idle Saturday as another day of rough seas kept crews away from the slick, and President Barack Obama planned a Sunday trip to the Gulf Coast.
Documents also emerged showing British Petroleum downplayed the possibility of a catastrophic accident at the offshore rig that exploded.
How far the spill will reach is unknown, but the sheen already has reached into precious shoreline habitat and remains unstopped, raising fears that the ruptured well could be pouring more oil into the Gulf than estimated.
The Coast Guard estimates now that at least 1.6 million gallons of oil have spilled since the April 20 explosion that killed 11 workers. The environmental mess could eclipse the Exxon Valdez disaster, when an oil tanker spilled 11 million gallons off Alaska’s shores in 1989.
The slick nearly tripled in just a day or so, growing from a spill the size of Rhode Island to something closer to the size of Puerto Rico, according to images collected from mostly European satellites and analyzed by the University of Miami.
On Thursday, the size of the slick was about 1,150 square miles, but by Friday’s end it was in the range of 3,850 square miles, said Hans Graber, executive director of the university’s Center for Southeastern Tropical Advanced Remote Sensing. That suggests the oil has started spilling from the well more quickly, Graber said.
“The spill and the spreading is getting so much faster and expanding much quicker than they estimated,” Graber told The Associated Press on Saturday.
Louisiana State University professor Ed Overton, who heads a federal chemical hazard assessment team for oil spills, cautioned that the satellite imagery could be deceiving.
He said satellites can’t measure the thickness of the sheen which makes it difficult to judge how much oil is on the water.
Another issue is that the oil slicks are not one giant uniform spill the size of an island. Instead, they are “little globs of oil in an area of big water,” Overton said.
BP suggested in a 2009 exploration plan and environmental impact analysis for the well that an accident leading to a giant crude oil spill — and serious damage to beaches, fish and mammals — was unlikely, or virtually impossible.
The plan for the Deepwater Horizon well, filed with the federal Minerals Management Service, said repeatedly that it was “unlikely that an accidental surface or subsurface oil spill would occur from the proposed activities.”
The company conceded a spill would impact beaches, wildlife refuges and wilderness areas, but argued that “due to the distance to shore (48 miles) and the response capabilities that would be implemented, no significant adverse impacts are expected.”
The spill — a slick more than 130 miles long and 70 miles wide — threatens hundreds of species of wildlife, including birds, dolphins, and the fish, shrimp, oysters and crabs that make the Gulf Coast one of the nation’s most abundant sources of seafood.