Local officials told to halt oil spill work


BILOXI — The state Department of Marine Resources — despite continued reports of what appears to be oil and tar near or onshore — said “there should be no new threats” and issued an order Monday for all Coast governments to halt any oil disaster work being funded by money BP granted to the state.

The move appears to be deepening a chasm between the state and federal governments and BP, who say the oil has mostly disappeared, and some local leaders and fishermen, who say they’re still seeing what appears to be oil and that their concerns are being ignored. State and federal government agencies say tests show Gulf seafood is safe to eat. Some local fishermen say they doubt this.

“I think this is absolutely a mistake,” said Harrison County Supervisor Kim Savant, who was surprised by the stop-work order the county received Monday, effective Monday. “I’d like to know why we can’t at least continue testing, testing on our beaches. I’d like to hear something stronger than ‘it appears everything’s OK.’ Where did that 50 million gallons go? I don’t understand the rationale behind this, unless the state has other plans for that money.”

DMR Director Bill Walker said “the decision was mine,” to halt the work, but that the governor’s office and state Department of Environmental Quality were involved. As of Monday evening, some local officials said they had not received the letter from Walker.

“I’m just asking them, in the face of a reduced threat of oil other than tar balls, to re-evaluate what they submitted to us earlier,” Walker said. “BP is continuing to clean up tar balls, and would clean up any other oil if it were there, for that matter. Counties and local governments can still do anything they want, and deal with it through the claims process with BP. They can also come explain to me (and the head of DEQ) what things they feel like need to be continued, and we’ll make a determination. It’s not like the doors are being shut on them.”

Walker said that at this point, money being spent on boom, testing and other work by local governments might be better spent on things such as promoting Gulf seafood.

BP allocated $25 million to the state for local government oil disaster work. Each government was given an amount up to which it would be reimbursed if it provided proper invoices and justification for the work. Walker said he doesn’t know at this point how much the local governments have spent — and that’s one reason he halted the work, to take an accounting. He estimated Monday that so far, local governments have only submitted about $500,000 worth of invoices to the state.

In recent days, there have been reports of what fishermen and local emergency management leaders and others say appears to be oil on or near mainland shores or barrier islands.

Walker said state and federal surveillance boats and aircraft cannot find any liquid oil in state waters, although he did admit that goo washing in on Horn Island does appear to be oil. He offered his phone number, 228-374-5010, to fishermen who want to show him any oil in the water.

James A. “Catfish” Miller, a longtime Coast commercial fisherman, said he’s spotted large plumes of oil floating under water nearshore, and he has serious doubts about the safety of seafood.

“We wish they would wait two or three months, not open the fishing back up until they’ve had more time to look it over,” Miller said. “I’ve seen everything from dead turtles to dead dolphins, dead crabs, dead pelicans, dead every kind of fish you can name. It’s still out there. It’s not over with.”

Walker said he believes Miller and a few other fishermen are making these claims because they are disgruntled about other issues, on which he wouldn’t elaborate. Miller denied this, and said the reason only a few fishermen are speaking out is most are afraid to talk.

“I’ve told Catfish, ‘Look, you just tell me, call this number, and we’ll go out on your boat to look at it, or we can take one of ours so you don’t burn up your gas,’” Walker said. “There’s about five or six of them disgruntled for some reason, and they are hurting the seafood industry as a whole. I’m irritated about it.

“ It’s just unfortunate they can’t see a little further down the road.”

Walker also said, “I’m not very happy with the national press,” over reports questioning the safety of seafood and whether large amounts of oil remain submerged.

“The only way I know to counter what they’re saying is with facts,” Walker said. “All the seafood that we have analyzed, and FDA has analyzed, has come back clean, no oil.”

Walker said the state will soon begin a systematic “grid” search for underwater oil with boats, “from stateline to stateline.”

Walker has said that the material that is still washing ashore — tar balls and “tar patties” — is nontoxic, and won’t harm the environment.

Hancock County Emergency Manager Brian Adam questions this.

“How can they say something that has oil in it is not a contaminate?” Adam said. “They can just come over here and look.”

Harrison County Supervisor Connie Rockco said she wonders if local governments are being shut out of the oil disaster response.

“I’m very disappointed, because when we had the meeting about (oil being put in a landfill), they assured us we would be in on the planning for the future, and we are not part of that plan,” she said.

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Stuart H. Smith is an attorney based in New Orleans fighting major oil companies and other polluters.
Cooper Law Firm

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