BILOXI – Members of President Barack Obama’s commission on the BP oil disaster met with a handful of local “stakeholders” Thursday and outlined the commission’s report on what went wrong and what should be done to prevent similar disasters.
The local officials and business leaders invited to hear the report, and a few environmental activists who weren’t invited but were allowed to sit in anyway, appeared to agree with the report overall. But the local leaders voiced concerns they hope commission members will share with the White House – about the Coast economy, long-term environmental and health effects and the seafood industry.
“I suggest to you the job is not done,” said Ken Montana, chairman of the Harrison County Tourism Commission. “You’ve got to take this report and make sure some action is provided to it. …The BP money is pretty much over with, but the men and women of our industry down here are still hurting and they’ll still be hurting next year and the year after that. I beseech you to help us with that. … All the funds were expended prior to your report, and now that we have an action plan, the money’s depleted. That doesn’t make sense.”
Obama created the commission about a month after the April 20 well blowout, and charged it with determining the cause of the disaster and recommendations to prevent future ones. The commission was co-chaired by former Florida governor and U.S. Sen. Bob Graham and former EPA Administrator William Reilly. The commission delivered its report to Obama on Tuesday.
On Thursday, commission members Terry Garcia, a vice president of the National Geographic Society and former NOAA official during the Exxon Valdez oil spill; Frances Beinecke, president of the Natural Resources Defense Council; and Frances Ulmer, former mayor of Juneau, Alaska, and now chancellor at the University of Alaska Anchorage, attended the Biloxi meeting.
The commission report cites failures by BP, Transocean and Halliburton as causes for the disaster, but also notes “systemic” problems with government oversight and disaster preparedness. It makes numerous recommendations for reform and oversight to prevent and cope with future oil disasters.
At meetings and hearings along the Gulf the commission has often been beset by questions and concerns outside its charge from the Obama administration, such as the BP claims operations and health concerns. But commission members said they do pass such concerns on to the White House, and they plan to follow progress on their recommendations.
“We’ve even talked about doing a report card in six or eight months,” said Ulmer. “Maybe even doing opinion columns in newspapers.”
The commission held a similar meeting in Louisiana on Wednesday, open to the public. A spokeswoman said Thursday’s Biloxi meeting, held at the Department of Marine Resources, was limited to invited guests because of space limitations at DMR.
Terese Collins of the Gulf Islands Conservancy and a few others were allowed to sit in anyway. Collins told the commission, “In Mississippi we are very concerned with the way the response was handled, and there were a lot of groups left out.” She said many have concerns that the testing being done on seafood, people’s health and the environment is inadequate. She said she hopes the commission’s recommendations for better preparedness would result in better scientific testing on things such as the dispersants used “to hide the oil.”
“We’re not sure who to trust anymore,” Collins said. “We are not a science experiment. The testing should have been done before you dumped millions of gallons of this poison to hide the oil.”
Commissioner Garcia said the 400-page report to the administration urges the EPA to better address health concerns and testing. He said the report also mentions the “strange phenomenon of perceived damage being worse than actual damage” in terms of seafood safety and beach tourism, which hurt local economies.
Invitees to the meeting included seafood, hotel, fishing and other business and government leaders. The question and comment period after the commissioners’ presentation was very brief.
“Y’all actually hit everything that’s on everybody’s minds,” D’Iberville Mayor Rusty Quave told the commission members. “But there is one concern we have, with funding, seafood testing and everything … is that the state needs to have a bigger role …. The states need to have control of their own destinies. That’s all we ask.”
Beinecke said the commission report says state and local governments should play a role in such disaster response. She noted local Gulf governments have vast expertise in hurricane response and preparedness.
“A lot of that preparedness was not called on in this response,” she said.