Spill response for Miss. will be based in Biloxi

Published 2:51 pm Wednesday, June 30, 2010

Gov. Haley Barbour said that oil spill response officials have agreed to transfer control of containment and cleanup efforts in the state from Mobile, Ala., to a Coast Guard office in Biloxi.

Barbour said Monday response boats will be equipped with radios and larger craft to collect soiled boom.

He said communication problems have hampered work, and boats wasted valuable time ferrying oily boom to and from shore.

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The state is ordering skimming vessels to scoop up oil before it reaches the coast and BP is bringing in more, but Barbour said still more are needed. Oil from the BP spill in the Gulf of Mexico began hitting mainland beaches over the weekend.

Biloxi-based Cmdr. Jason Merriweather will manage all assets sent to the state, Barbour said, including aircraft, vessels and other materials.

The sector command “will continue to make the decision as to the division of assets,” Barbour said. “But once we know what our assets are … they’ll be controlled right here.”

Merriweather will be working with the Mississippi Department of Environmental Quality and Department of Marine Resources, Barbour said, to manage the response.

As it stands, if a Mississippi National Guard helicopter sees oil, it reports the findings to Mobile, and then Mobile reports it to Biloxi, Barbour said.

“We have learned in just that extra step, we lose time and sometimes we lose total direction,” he said.

Barbour and U.S. Rep. Gene Taylor, D-Miss., met Monday in Biloxi with representatives from the Unified Command from Mobile to discuss the state’s strategy to fight the encroaching oil.

Barbour and Taylor both called for more resources in Mississippi.

“We talked last week … about our concern that the plan we agreed to with the Unified Command and with BP several weeks ago wasn’t being given the resources to be fully effective,” Barbour said. “That became all the clearer over the weekend, when we had a tremendous amount of oil off the barrier islands, in the passes and some oil in the Sound.”

The oil in the Sound is “more than we have the capacity to deal with,” he said. “We have to be honest with the public. Right now, we don’t have enough skimming capacity if everything that is off our shores actually keeps coming north.”

Coast Guard Adm. Thad Allen, who is commanding the federal response to the spill, said during a media briefing Monday that shifting winds from Tropical Storm Alex were pushing oil into the Mississippi Sound and into Breton Sound in Louisiana. Previously, oil had been pushed mainly east into the Florida Panhandle and Alabama.

Any potential storm surge could carry oil deeper into the marshes, they said, and Alex is being watched closely.

“We’re moving forces (to Mississippi and Louisiana) as we speak,” Allen said.

Oil reached the shore in Jackson County over the weekend around Belle Fontaine Road beaches in Fontainebleau and near the Lake Mars boat ramp. A small amount of oil also reached Biloxi beaches in Harrison County, Barbour said.

Leaders said their meeting with Unified Command should help Mississippi react quicker to the oil’s arrival.

“I can’t tell you it will be perfect,” Barbour said of the revamped system. “But I can tell you with a great deal of certainty that it will be better than what we’ve been able to do.”

Leaders decided that all Vessels of Opportunity in Mississippi will be required to report to another lead vessel, where a Coast Guard or National Guard member will be stationed, he said.

That lead vessel will then report to Mobile and Biloxi.

Taylor said state leaders have “been given assurances the skimming vessels will be forward-deployed at the islands, so it’s not wasting two hours between the mainland and the islands before you can get started.”

Barbour said that while about 1,200 vessels have signed up to work the spill, a lot of those are too small to be effective.

“Now is the time to start trying to sign up the larger vessels that have more capacity,” he said.

The oil response requires vessels that can pull skimmers and absorbent boom and stay out overnight, out or beyond the barrier islands, Barbour said.

“Now that we’re actually having to collect oil, small, open boats are not really much help, particularly if they have to come back and forth every day and refuel,” he said.

Unified Command has been meeting with fisherman to learn more about the getting the 50- to 100-foot boats signed up, he said.

Ocean Springs Mayor Connie Moran said the city is hoping to have additional boom installed soon and are looking into ways to get a new form of boom — similar to a form of ocean boom that extends deep into the water — developed and approved for use to help prevent oil from entering any bayous and estuaries.

Some of the tar balls found Monday apparently floated around some of the protective fencing the city of Ocean Springs had installed.