Erica Miller
Dr. Erica Miller, left, and Danene Birtell, of Tri-State Bird Rescue and Research, work at a facility in Fort Jackson, La., on Friday to clean a northern gannet covered in oil from the massive spill in the Gulf of Mexico. Alex Brandon

Opponents of a federal plan to allow drilling off mid-Atlantic states said Friday that the massive spill in the Gulf Coast shows why expanding oil leases is a bad idea for New Jersey.

New Jersey environmentalists and political leaders said the Gulf spill had solidified their opposition, and a fishing group that previously supported proposed oil drilling in the Atlantic Ocean said the disaster changed many members’ opinions.

The spill 40 miles off Louisiana is leaking an estimated 5,000 barrels of oil per day into the gulf, making it one of the worst manmade ecological disasters in the United States. The spill started after an oil rig leased by British Petroleum exploded April 20, killing 11 people.

At the present rate of leakage, the disaster could eclipse the 1989 Exxon Valdez spill off Alaska by mid-June, a distinct possibility if oil companies fail to stem the flow.

Meanwhile, President Barack Obama on Friday halted the issuing of new offshore oil leases until rigs have new safeguards to prevent a similar catastrophe.

This was in contrast to Obama’s announcement March 31 that he intends to open up oil drilling in parts of the Atlantic Ocean extending north to southern New Jersey. That announcement had drawn opposition from Gov. Chris Christie, U.S. Rep. Frank LoBiondo, R-2nd, and both U.S. Sens. Robert Menendez and Frank Lautenberg.

“This is more than a spill of national significance. This is an absolute catastrophe,” Lautenberg said in a statement Friday. “This spill is proof-positive that oil drilling is a clear and present danger to our health, our environment, and our economy. That’s why I will not support any energy legislation that does not include protections against irresponsible drilling in the mid-Atlantic.”

The Recreational Fishing Alliance endorsed the president’s plan to expand offshore oil drilling as a means of cutting fuel costs.

“After Hurricane Katrina, it confirmed to everyone the industry was safe. We wanted to see the price of fuel come down so we could get offshore more,” said Jim Donofrio, a Galloway Township resident and director of the national group. “We have a pro-drilling attitude as long as it’s going to be clean.”

But Donofrio said support from the industry has soured in the wake of the accident.

“This spill has changed everyone’s opinion. The immediate reaction is this is a bad idea. Our Gulf guys are in a panic,” he said. “What’s going to happen to that recreational fishing industry?”

The accident also crystallized opposition to drilling by tourism interests, worried about the possibility of tar balls from offshore drilling platforms washing up on busy New Jersey beaches. Tourism is the No. 1 industry in southern New Jersey.

“We rely on our coastline as the driver of our economy. We can’t risk having a disaster like this,” said Jeffrey Vasser, president of the Atlantic City Convention & Visitors Authority. “As a nation, we need to do what we can to secure our energy, but we need to be careful that we don’t sacrifice our economy.”

Michele Gillian, director of the Ocean City Regional Chamber of Commerce, agreed the risks are high.

“You can do 100 things right in public relations for your customers and your constituency and you can have one thing like this damage your image for a long, long time,” she said.

“When people save all year to come and vacation for five to seven days, they have to have a fun, safe time in the resort. Otherwise, it’s hard to get them to come back.”

Even if offshore oil-drilling stimulated the regional economy, it would not provide the same financial benefit to individual business owners who rely on a steady flow of tourists, said Diane Wieland, director of tourism for Cape May County.

“It’s a wake-up call,” she said. “The ocean is our economy and the sand is our brand.”

James Benton, director of the New Jersey Petroleum Council, said the state would be affected little by offshore drilling since it is on the northern fringe of the mid-Atlantic maps proposed for new leases.

Despite the Louisiana accident, this is still a good plan, he said.

“It will take time to assess that accident and identify what caused it and assure the tragedy doesn’t happen again. We try to operate perfectly with zero injuries and zero spills. Sometimes, we sadly fall short of that goal,” he said. “But it hasn’t changed the need to establish our national long-term security. It’s a reality. We need oil. We need natural gas to fuel our economy.”

At the accident site, the U.S. Coast Guard dropped 100,000 gallons of oil dispersant on the spill to try to break down some of the compounds before the slick reached land. Emergency workers set up staging grounds in four states along the Gulf Coast to protect sensitive wetlands.

Wildlife rehabilitators rescued the first oil-slicked birds Friday as volunteers and workers stretched booms to protect fragile marshes.

The biggest immediate threat will be to oceangoing ducks, cormorants, loons and other birds that rest on the water’s surface, said David Mizrahi, vice president for research at the New Jersey Audubon Society.

But shorebirds such as sandpipers, herons, egrets and plovers will be affected as the oil reaches beaches and mudflats where they feed, he said.

The Gulf Coast in Texas is an important stopover for migratory birds. The most harmful effects could come during the fall migration, he said.

“They’re coming up on their breeding grounds in June. By July, some birds are already making the southbound trip,” he said.

Meanwhile, the Recreational Fishing Alliance is concerned about the effects on the estuaries in the Gulf Coast, one of the richest fishing grounds in the United States.

“Once you get in the estuary, you have fish eggs, larvae, juvenile fish, oysters, crabs — that’s their nursery grounds,” Donofrio said.

“It’s never good timing for any spill, but Louisiana is one of the biggest wintering habitats for migratory waterfowl,” he said. “If this is not cleaned up by the time the birds start heading back in August, it’s going to be much worse.”

The Associated Press contributed to this report.

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