Barack Obama, the US president, has vowed that "no effort" will be spared in attempts to tackle a massive oil slick threatening the coast of the Gulf of Mexico.
Shortly after arriving in the US state of Louisiana, one of four that could be affected by the spill, Obama defended his government's response to the potential disaster.
"The federal government has launched and co-ordinated an all hands on deck relentless response to this crisis from day one after the explosion on the drilling rig," he said in the town of Venice on Sunday.
"From day one we have prepared and planned for the worst even if we had hoped for the best, while we have prepared and reacted aggressively, we are not going to rest or be satisfied until the leak has stopped at the source."
Hundreds of thousands of litres of oil have been pouring from a ruptured well in the Gulf of Mexico since Thursday and there has been increasing criticism of the response of the government and oil giant BP.
BP under pressure
"BP is responsible for this leak, BP will be paying the bill but as president of the US, I am not going to spare any efforts respond to this crisis for as long as it continues and we will not spare any resources to clean up whatever damage it may cause," Obama said.
Lamar McKay, BP's chairman defended his company's safety record and told ABC's "This Week" that "a failed piece of equipment'' was to blame for the spill.
He said it was impossible to say when the well, which is 1.6km beneath the sea, might be plugged, but that if the company's submarines were unable to shut off the "blowout preventer" then a metal dome could be deployed within eight days to smother wellhead.
Al Jazeera's Sebastian Walker, reporting from Venice, said that residents had come out to see Obama and appeal for something to be done to help them.
"There are a lot of people here who are extremely concerned about their livelihoods," he said.
"On the road that the president had to take from New Orleans to this spot there were people out in the streets waiting to see his car go by with signs saying 'Obama we need help'.
"People are extremely concerned about what is going to happen next and concerned that the response so far has not been particularly fast," he said.
Shortly before Obama arrived, officials stopped commercial and recreational fishing for a minimum of 10 days in federal waters affected by the spill.
The affected waters are largely between the mouth of the Mississippi River in Louisiana and Florida's Pensacola Bay, the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration (NOAA) said.
"Balancing economic and health concerns, this order closes just those areas that are affected by oil," Jane Lubchenco, the NOAA administrator, said in a statement.
"There should be no health risk in seafood currently in the marketplace."
Louisiana accounts for an estimated one-third of the country's total oyster output, and the Gulf of Mexico is prime spawning waters for fish, shrimp and crabs, as well as a major stop for migratory birds.
Government data on Sunday showed that the thickest part of the huge slick had turned northward towards the remote Chandeleur Islands, a chain of uninhabited islets in eastern Louisiana that is an important wildlife area.
The chain of uninhabited islets in eastern Louisiana is prime marsh and wildlife area, but officials said confirmation of any impacts would not be known until an overflight was conducted.
|US officials have closed commercial and recreational fishing near the coast [AFP]
"Basically what it's showing is that the light sheen is impacting the islands in the Chandeleur Sound," Petty Officer Matthew Schofield of the coast guard told the AFP news agency.
"What we need to do is get an overflight to confirm that we have a light impact. These are just predictions of oil impacts, we have not been able to confirm them."
The Chandeleur Islands form the easternmost point of Louisiana and are part of the Breton National Wildlife Refuge, the second oldest refuge in the United States and home to countless endangered brown pelican, least tern, and piping plover.
Recovery workers have been deploying miles of inflatable booms hoping to contain the oil, but strong winds and heavy seas have caused several of the barriers to break loose, washing them onto the shore.
Chemical dispersant is being used underwater in an attempt to tackle the oil as it leaves the broken riser, while remote-controlled subs were trying to activate a "blow out preventer" – a massive undersea valve that should have blocked oil from flowing into the sea when the rig sank.
With efforts to plug the leak so far unsuccessful and worsening weather in the coming days likely to further hamper attempts to plug the leak, fears are growing of an ecological disaster that could rival the 1989 Exxon Valdez tanker spill in Alaska.
That disaster spilled an estimated 40.9 million litres of crude oil into the previously environmentally pristine waters of Prince William Sound, devastating local wildlife.