By DARLENE SUPERVILLE
CHICAGO – A day after saying “I take responsibility” for the biggest oil spill in U.S. history, President Barack Obama was heading to coastal Louisiana for an update on the effort to stop the damaging flow of crude into the Gulf of Mexico.
Obama, who is spending Memorial Day weekend at his Chicago home, was scheduled to attend a briefing Friday at the U.S. Coast Guard Station in Grand Isle, La., by Adm. Thad Allen, who is overseeing the response to the spill. An oil rig leased by BP PLC exploded April 20 and later sank, killing 11 people and releasing millions of gallons of crude oil into the Gulf.
The president’s visit, his second to the devastated region since the tragedy began, comes at a time of escalating anger and frustration along the coast, and in the country at large, with the inability of BP and the government to stop the flow of oil that is damaging marine life, wildlife and the local economy.
BP tried for a second day Thursday to stop the leak a mile deep in the Gulf. After an 18-hour delay to assess progress and replenish materials, the company resumed pumping heavy drilling mud into the blown-out underwater well. Officials said it could be late Friday or even during the weekend before the company will know whether the “top kill” procedure has succeeded in cutting off the oil that has been gushing into the Gulf for five weeks.
At the White House on Thursday, Obama acknowledged that his administration could have done a better job dealing with the spill and that it had misjudged the industry’s ability to handle a worst-case scenario.
“I take responsibility. It is my job to make sure that everything is done to shut this down,” Obama said at a news conference, where he announced a series of new restrictions on oil drilling projects.
Separately, Elizabeth Birnbaum, the head of the Minerals Management Service that oversees offshore drilling, became the highest-ranking political casualty of the spill when she resigned Thursday under pressure.
Public support for Obama’s handling of the ecological disaster is dropping and his move to take responsibility, answer questions and visit the region represent a more aggressive White House effort to quell the frustration.
“My job right now is just to make sure everybody in the Gulf understands: This is what I wake up to in the morning, and this is what I go to bed at night thinking about. The spill,” Obama said.
Some of those feeling the effects of the oil that is soiling birds and darkening beaches along the coast had mixed feelings about whether Obama should even come to see what is happening along the coast.
“He’ll have a better idea of what he needs to do or get other people to do,” said Donald Lefort, 41, a convenience store clerk in Venice, La., which has become a staging area for efforts to fight the oil.
Larry Freman, 72, who was cleaning up around his vacation home on Grand Isle’s main drag, which usually is packed with vacationers this close to Memorial Day, said Obama should stay home.
“I think he’s wasting his time coming here,” the oil business veteran said.
Buggie Vegas, owner of Bridge Side Cabins and Marina on Grand Isle, criticized the federal response but said it would be helpful for Obama to see the effects of the disaster.
“I think he’s going to get the message when he comes down and sees how bad it is,” Vegas said.
Obama on Thursday announced new restrictions on oil drilling, including continuing a moratorium on drilling permits for six months, suspending planned exploratory drilling off the coasts of Alaska and Virginia and ordering a halt to 33 exploratory deep-water rigs in the Gulf.
Obama also singled out a half dozen areas where he and his administration could have done better, including not moving sooner to end “cozy and sometimes corrupt” relations between the oil industry and government regulators and not getting a better estimate on the amount of oil gushing from the broken well.
New government estimates Thursday put the size of the spill at nearly 18 million to 39 million gallons over the past five weeks, surpassing the 1989 Exxon Valdez accident in Alaska. Then, nearly 11 million gallons spilled.
Associated Press writers Mary Foster and Kevin McGill along Louisiana’s coast contributed to this report.
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