Oil from BP's spill in the Gulf of Mexico may already be spreading toward Florida, government officials said today.
While the bulk of the oil remains close to the site of the leak off the coast of Louisiana, aerial surveys suggest that light oil is close to the so-called loop current in the gulf, or may have already reached it, National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration officials said in a conference call with reporters. The current could carry oil south to the Florida Keys and on to the Gulf Stream, which flows into the Atlantic Ocean.
The proximity of the light oil "indicates that oil is increasingly likely to become entrained, if it is not already," said Jane Lubchenco, the NOAA administrator.
NOAA officials believe that the diluted oil carried by the current would pose a minimal risk to Florida and the East Coast, but there are signs that the spill could already be having an impact far from the site of the leak.
In Key West, Florida, about 500 miles from where the Deepwater Horizon drilling rig collapsed, authorities have discovered 60 tar balls ranging between 3 to 8 inches in diameter, according to the U.S. Coast Guard.
Officials could not determine whether the tar balls came from the BP spill. They have been sent to a lab for analysis.
In Louisiana, Republican Gov. Bobby Jindal completed a flyover of the Plaquemines Parish and found troubling signs of a growing ecological problem.
Deep in Louisiana's weblands near Pass a Loutre, Jindal said he saw heavy oil that could cause major damage to aquatic life and the seafood industry.
"This is the first time we've seen this much heavy oil this far into our wetlands," Jindal said at a press conference following the flyover, noting that more heavy oil is forecast to hit the wetlands in the coming days.
Government officials today recapped the impact of the spill on wildlife so far. Thirty-five oiled birds have been discovered, 23 of which were brought in dead. One hundred and fifty-six sea turtles and 12 bottlenose dolphins have been found dead, though necropsies do not show any external or internal signs of oil.
"This spill is significant, and in all likelihood will affect wildlife for years if not decades," said Rowan Gold, the acting director of the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service.
Far from the oil in the gulf, Interior Secretary Ken Salazar faced tough questions on Capitol Hill today.
Salazar acknowledged government failures in relation to the spill, saying that his department's Minerals Management Service failed adequately to regulate the blowout preventers that could have prevented the disaster.
"I think that there is additional work that should have been done with respect to blowout prevention mechanisms," Salazar conceded.
In his first appearance before lawmakers since the drilling accident 29 days ago, the interior secretary promised to give officials who regulate offshore drilling "more tools, more resources, more independence and greater authority."
When asked whether another rig could have a similar problem, Salazar said that all rigs are inspected every 30 days, according to regulations.
But ABC's Jake Tapper reports that the requried monthly inspections do not always happen.