Gulf States Take Lead in Addressing Oil Spill

Published July 13, 2010

Gulf Coast states are taking the initiative in addressing the BP oil spill, as the federal government continues to do little to protect states from advancing oil and has been standing in the way of many remedial actions by the states.

State and local officials in Louisiana, Mississippi, Alabama, and Florida are expressing frustration at the federal government’s innefectiveness in protecting coastlands from oil damage while federal agencies have simultaneously blocked states and local governments from taking their own steps to protect the coast.

Louisiana Lost Precious Time
In Louisiana, state officials worked to protect the shore by dredging sand to create protective berms. The White House halted the project, however, after the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service expressed concern dredging near the Chandeleur Islands could cause beach erosion.

Plaquemines Parish President Billy Nungesser immediately sent a letter to President Obama urging him to allow the dredging to continue.

“Every minute we waste makes us more and more vulnerable to the oil attacking the marsh and the breeding grounds for the pelicans. It’s a shame that the bureaucrats once again fight us instead of helping us in this war against the oil,” said Nungesser in a June 23 press statement.

Shut Down Immediately
State officials began the process of relocating a pipeline that had been dredging sand near the Chandeleur Islands, but Louisiana officials did not move the pipeline fast enough as the Obama administration wanted, so two federal agencies shut it down.

“We wanted them to allow us to keep dredging as we moved the pipe. But they said no, we want you to stop right now, so they shut us down,” said Plaquemines Parish Public Information Officer Kurt Fromherz.

The pipe has been relocated, but Louisiana lost six vital days of berm construction during the mandated shutdown.

“We are just six days after the [Army Corps of Engineers] and U.S. Fish [and Wildlife Service] shut us down and our fears have been confirmed. Oil is in the northern islands and will continue to contaminate our fisheries, kill our wetlands, and threaten our way of life here in Louisiana,” said Nungesser in a June 28 press statement.

Feds Stalled Florida Effort
In Florida, nearly two months ago Escambia County requested permission from the federal Mobile Unified Command Center to use a sand skimmer, a device which is pulled behind a tractor to clean oil and tar from the top three feet of sand.

Santa Rosa Island Authority manager Buck Lee said county officials did not receive the device until more than a month later. According to Lee, the federal command center sent the request to BP and several other federal agencies to review before it could be granted. In the meantime, valuable time to protect clean and protect the shore slipped away.

Lee said recent changes in wind direction have pushed the oil closer to shore.

“Because of wave conditions and current we now see oil start entering Mississippi Sound and areas around Chandeleur and Breton Sound. We’re very concerned about that. We’re moving forces there as we speak,” said Lee.

Lee expressed concern the situation could become much worse if a hurricane forms in the Gulf.

“Any kind of a surge from a storm would, obviously, exacerbate the [problem], move [the oil] further into marshes, and cause problems for us. So we’re going to face that potential throughout the hurricane season should we have any kind of heavy weather,” Lee said.

Mississippi Takes Greater Control
In Mississippi, Gov. Haley Barbour (R) declared Mississippi state officials will assume greater input over spill-control efforts in light of the federal government’s failures.

Biloxi-based U.S. Coast Guard Commander Jason Merriweather will work with officials from the Mississippi Department of Environmental Quality officials and the Mississippi Department of Marine Resources to manage assets sent to the state, including aircraft and vessels.

Before, if a Mississippi National Guard helicopter spotted oil, it reported the findings to Mobile, and then Mobile reported it Biloxi. Barbour had complained the state lost time because of the extra step required.

Alabama Repeatedly Thwarted
In Alabama, state officials have expressed exasperation with federal actions undermining state efforts to protect the coast. Alabama has begun giving funds directly to locals fighting the oil spill instead of following directives from the Unified Command.

According to state disaster relief officials, Alabama immediately located and erected heavy booms to defend their shorelines, but shortly after the booms were put in place, the U.S. Coast Guard moved them to guard Louisiana’s coastline instead.

As a backup plan, Alabama sought to buy snare booms to catch oil as it washed up on the state’s beaches, but the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service blocked the plan, claiming it would harm sea turtles that nest on the beaches.

As a last resort, Alabama hired 400 workers to monitor and clean oil from the beaches. But the Occupational Safety and Health Administration prohibited the laborers from working more than 20 minutes out of every hour and required them to take an hour-long break after 40 minutes of work.

Gov. Bob Riley (R) met with President Obama and National Incident Commander Admiral Thad Allen to voice his frustration over the removal of the booms from Alabama. The meeting resulted in the replacement of booms on Alabama shoreline.

“Boom that was deployed here in Alabama should never have been taken from us in the first place. The Gulf states are all in this together,” Riley said in a press statement.

Alyssa Carducci ([email protected]) writes from Tampa, Florida.