Shifting Winds in Mississippi


The oil has come ashore on Mississippi beaches, and state officials are all of a sudden genuinely pissed off despite the fact that the landfall was a foregone conclusion six weeks ago. They find themselves watching in horror as their state’s economy heads into a free fall as the oil rolls in wave after wave…just in time for the huge July 4th holiday weekend. Republican Gov. Haley Barbour, U.S. Rep. Gene Taylor (D-MS) and a bevy of mayors in the state are blasting both BP and the federal government for the lackluster response to keeping the oil offshore. U.S. Rep. Taylor, whose district stretches along the Mississippi coastline, had these choice words to describe the containment and cleanup efforts: “[I] was dumbfounded by the amount of wasted effort, wasted money and stupidity that I saw.” Connie Moran, the mayor of Ocean Springs, said: “The unified command’s failure to skim the oil north of Horn Island yesterday is inept and inexcusable. Had they deployed those resources, the impact to Jackson County would’ve been far less today.”

The anger and frustration is completely understandable, but it’s worth noting that this is a major reversal, at least on Gov. Barbour’s part, from the position held just weeks ago. Before the oil made landfall in Mississippi, Barbour repeatedly downplayed the spill in interviews, holding tightly to his pro-Big Oil, pro-offshore drilling mantra. The pre-landfall Barbour suggested that the BP spill would ultimately have “minimal impact” and that this spill “isn’t anything like Exxon Valdez.” Just for the record, the BP spill is now some 10 to 15 times the size of the Exxon Valdez spill, depending on which flow estimates you believe. In a pre-landfall interview (June 24) with Charlie Rose, the governor said: “Do I think this BP spill is going to be the Chernobyl or Three Mile Island of offshore drilling? I don’t think so.” In that same interview, Barbour also suggested that the spill response had been to his satisfaction: “I will say about this Administration, they have tried to do everything we’ve asked them to, and in fairness, so has BP.”

What a difference a few days make. Here is a sample of what the governor is saying post-landfall:

Barbour said that “the plan we agreed to with the unified command and BP wasn’t being given the resources to be totally effective. There continues to be more oil in the [Mississippi] Sound than we have the capacity to deal with, unless we get lucky.” Don’t count on it, Haley!

Now that large amounts of oil are washing up on Mississippi’s mainland beaches, Barbour has changed his tune, pleading for help and blaming BP and the U.S. government for their failure to head off the oil. People in New Orleans, myself included, charge Barbour with wanting it both ways. He seems to have fallen prey to the old political pitfall of “he was for it before he was against it.” The cleanup, that is.

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