Reporter: Michael Usher
Producers: Jo Townsend, Skye Gilkeson
It's an environmental catastrophe far worse than the Exxon Valdez disaster.
Right now, a crippled underground well is spewing millions upon millions of litres of crude oil out into the Mexican Gulf. And no one seems able to stop it.
Michael Usher has been in Louisiana, the American state that's copped the worst of the spill. And what's happening there is absolutely heartbreaking.
It just shows what can happen when companies put profits before people and places.
Read Michael Usher's blog on this story and have your say
PHOTOS: 60 Minutes in Louisiana, the state that's copped the worst of the spill
MICHAEL USHER: We're heading where very few people have been allowed. To the epicentre of one of the worst man-made environmental disasters in history. The US Coast Guard has given us exclusive access. Only emergency crews have been this deep inside the oil spill exclusion zone, more than 100 kilometres off Louisiana in the Gulf of Mexico. It is incredible to be in this place right now. This is the actual source of the oil spill the beginning of the catastrophe. There are rigs right now are working furiously to drill deep and intercept that ruptured pipeline. It is incredible, it is overwhelming in scale. You can smell the oil, it's so strong, and it stings your eyes. And when you look down, you can see the red, rusty, oil globs sitting on the surface and a sheen that stretches, as far as the eye can see. Out here, the sheer scale of the catastrophe is overwhelming. We followed rivers of oil back towards the coastline, some were 30 kilometres long, moving with the fast-flowing Gulf currents. Some experts say 16 million litres of oil is billowing into the sea each day. When you get down onto the surface, and you get up close to this oil slick, you see just what a crisis it is. Let me take a sample and try and show you. That is pure, crude oil, it's toxic sludge, and it has the consistency of thick,melted tar. It would seem that it's almost impossible to clean this stuff up from the shorelines. On shore, it has been a slow-motion disaster, and only this past week have the first waves of oil hit the mainland, with all their terrible consequences. Sea life has been devastated, birds and fish lay dying over a wide area.
KINDRA ARNESEN: Can they fix it? Maybe in 30 years - good luck. They have murdered the Gulf.
MICHAEL USHER: Kindra Arnesen is one of thousands of locals whose lives face ruin. Why don't you show me on board? Her family has fished these waters for two decades, now, their shrimping boat lies idle. More than 22,000 square kilometres of America's most fertile fishing grounds have been closed. It's a way of life that's been ruined.
KINDRA ARNESEN: It is a way of life that has been ruined. They've killed a food source. The Gulf produces the best-tasting seafood you'll ever eat.
MICHAEL USHER: Used to.
KINDRA ARNESEN: Yeah, used to, you hit the nail on the head - once upon a time. I guess that'll be something in history.
MICHAEL USHER: That's sad.
KINDRA ARNESEN: That's heartbreaking. It's disgusting.
MICHAEL USHER: It was 20 April when the oil line at BP's Deepwater Horizon ruptured and exploded, causing the rig on the surface to burst into balls of flame. 11 workers were killed, 17 injured, and two days later, the platform collapsed and sank, leaving the broken pipe on the sea floor, spewing oil.
(FISHERMAN) ALBERT: This is the boat right here, if you want to jump aboard.
MICHAEL USHER: This is the one you were on? I'd like to, thank you. Remarkably, that night, fishing buddies Albert, Wes, Dustin and Ryan were moored right beneath that enormous platform. It was their favourite spot for yellowfin tuna.
(FISHERMAN) WES: There was this loud hissing noise, it was really loud, so loud where we were we couldn't hear each other, couldn't talk to each other.
(FISHERMAN) ALBERT: It was like a freight train.
(FISHERMAN) WES: It was just so loud, you, we , could feel it - we could feel the heat, the explosion was just tremendous.
MICHAEL USHER: The boys knew they had to get out of there fast.
(FISHERMAN) ALBERT: As soon as I saw it, he just said, 'Go, go, go!' And he meant it, you know? Everybody knew he was serious. And the only thing I did was just floor those two throttles and went straight out as far as we could go.
MICHAEL USHER: As they sped away, they grabbed a video camera and started rolling. FISHERMAN ON VIDEOTAPE: Holy shit, dude. Look at the water on fire.
(FISHERMAN) ALBERT: I thought everybody was dead. I didn't think anyone could ever survive. The whole rig was all in flames, you know?
MICHAEL USHER: Incredibly, 115 rig workers did survive, among them, chief electronics technician, Mike Williams, in charge of the rig's computers and electrical systems.
MIKE WILLIAMS: I heard this awful hissing noise, this whoosh. And at the height of the hiss, a huge explosion. It's just take-your-breath-away type explosions, shake-your-body-to-the-core explosions. Take your vision away, from the percussion, explosions.
MICHAEL USHER: It was chaos. All safety procedure went to hell, the life boats had been launched, leaving Mike and many others behind. He made a split-second decision to jump from the burning 10-storey rig.
MIKE WILLIAMS: I remember closing my eyes and saying a prayer, and asking God to tell my wife and my little girl that Daddy did everything he could. I made those three steps, and I pushed off the end of the rig. And I fell for what seemed like forever. A lot of things go through your mind.
MICHAEL USHER: Deepwater Horizon was BP's crowning glory in the Gulf. The $400 million operation had drilled deeper than any oil rig in history - 10 kilometres straight down. And not a single worker had been injured in seven years. But there were problems, and a lot of pressure from management.
MIKE WILLIAMS: You always kind of knew that, in the back of your mind, that when they start throwing these big numbers around there was going to be a push coming, to pick up production and pick up the pace.
MICHAEL USHER: Critically, three weeks before the explosion, a crewman's mistake damaged a crucial safety seal on a device known as the blowout preventer, designed to stop an explosion. The problem was discussed at a safety meeting onboard Deepwater Horizon. Mike Williams says the rig's owner, Transocean, suggested a temporary shutdown. But BP, which owns the oil, demanded drilling continue.
MIKE WILLIAMS: I had the BP company man sitting directly beside me. And he literally perked up and said, "Well, my process is different, "and I think we're going to do it this way." So there was sort of a chest bumping kind of deal. The communication seemed to really break down as to who was ultimately in charge.
MICHAEL USHER: The repair operation and BP's failure to shut down have become key to the disaster investigation. But meanwhile, live cameras on the ocean floor show the ferocity of the ongoing leak. Let me show you something over here, because beneath this net is where I think the oil catastrophe becomes quite upsetting, just have a look under here, we'll do it gently and quietly, under there are 28 pelicans, soaked in that toxic oil. They think they will save most of them, they're getting under way with that this afternoon. But if this is what's happening with the wildlife on the shoreline, it's unbearable to think what's happening right now to the marine life beneath the sea.
DR RIKI OTT: I mean, this is really a man-made catastrophe. This is the scale of a hurricane, but it's an oil spill.
MICHAEL USHER: Weaving through the maze of marshlands at the mouth of the Mississippi River, it doesn't take long to discover more oil pollution. Look at that, if you just run your hands up these reeds, this is what comes off. The slick has rippled through these sensitive wetlands, leaving its black mark - a toxic tide line that's strangling these plants. Look at that, all the way through, as far as the eye can see. It's strong, isn't it? You can really smell that oil. The fumes - it's so strong.
DR RIKI OTT: Yeah, oh yeah.
MICHAEL USHER: Biologist Dr Riki Ott is a world expert in marine pollution. She saw first hand, 21 years ago, how massive oil spills impact communities. Riki was working in Alaska when the 'Exxon Valdez' disaster struck. Even today, that pristine waterway has not fully recovered.
DR RIKI OTT: What we have is an ecosystem that's still recovering, and the scientists are saying, it is going to be another 50 years minimum before that oil goes away.
MICHAEL USHER: Exxon was considered the worst ecological disaster of its time, but already, even by BP's own estimates, this is 10 times worse, and the numbers here are rising every day.
DR RIKI OTT: We have our priorities kind of wrong in this country, and we are left wondering, who rules? Is it we, the people, or we, the corporation? The American public says no - no more dead dolphins, no more dead sea turtles, no more sick people, no more cultures destroyed - enough, already, of oil.
MICHAEL USHER: This community is certainly saying 'enough'. Kindra Arnesen has become a crusader. The Erin Brokovitch of Venice, Louisiana. A straight-talking Southerner, not afraid to stand up to big oil and big government.
KINDRA ARNESEN: Everything is dying! It's either dying or dead! They can't fix this. Everybody, we got to get out of this pissing match and get everybody on the same page. If that doesn't happen, this is going to affect the entire world.
MICHAEL USHER: Some locals are trying to get the job done. Unable to fish, they're now paid by BP to scoop up oil. Proud fishermen, suffering the indignation of working for the company that has wrecked their livelihoods. And their pay cheques now come from this man.
TONY HAYWARD: To those affected in your families, I'm deeply sorry.
MICHAEL USHER: Tony Hayward is the British boss of BP and the lightning rod for so much American anger right now.
TONY HAYWARD: There is no-one who wants this thing over more than I. I would like my life back.
KINDRA ARNESEN: Me too! Me too! I'd love my life back. My restaurant remains closed because I don't have time for my business right now. 'Cause I have to take care of Tony Hayward's business, because he can't take care of it hisself! My heart says I'd like to spit in Hayward's face, to be perfectly honest with you. He disgusts me.
MICHAEL USHER: The clean-up will take years, and BP has accepted full responsibility. So far, it has cost them $1.5 billion. Their headlong pursuit of profit now has them haemorrhaging money as fast as the oil gushing from their ruptured pipeline. But don't expect sympathy from anyone around here.
KINDRA ARNESEN: Now their stocks are plummeting? Aw, you want a towel to cry on? Maybe you should use the one that's soaked in my tears!