Special Reports

As oil washes ashore, officials stress no need to panic — yet

KEESLER AIR FORCE BASE, Miss. — As the first confirmed reports of oil washing ashore on barrier islands were coming in Thursday, Obama cabinet members tried to reinforce the message Mississippi leaders continue to give: No need to panic, yet. It might go away.

They even put in a plug for Gulf seafood, promising it’s still safe to eat because they’ve shut down fishing in contaminated areas.

“As Gov. (Haley) Barbour says, we don’t want to be Pollyanna-ish, but we don’t want to predict Armageddon,” said Homeland Security Secretary Janet Napolitano, joined by Barbour and Commerce and NOAA secretaries. Napolitano said the Gulf oil spill is “unique and still-evolving and potentially an unprecedented disaster” but offered that “possibly it won’t be.”

She promised that federal, state and local officials are preparing for the worst, but provided few details of what that might be, other than “if they lose control at the wellhead itself” and more oil starts gushing. She also repeated promises that BP would be made to pay all costs of cleanup and reparations.

Coast charter boat Captain George Pelaez of the Joka’s Wild reported to the Sun Herald that oil was washing into the grass beds on North Island, six miles from the northern tip of the Chandeleur chain in Louisiana water, roughly 28 miles from Biloxi. Pelaez said he saw a sheen of oil and thicker streaks. He said he didn’t see any dead fish or birds. He said the streaks of thicker oil were about 30 yards wide and some were almost a mile long.

“It looked like this was the first onslaught on the leeward side of the island,” said Pelaez, who has been operating a charter for 15 years. “We don’t know what is in store for us and how it is going to affect the grass beds and the ecosystem.”

The Associated Press also reported Thursday that oil, along with dead jellyfish, was washing onto shore at New Harbor Island, in the Chandeleur chain, and that BP had confirmed reports of oil reaching the Chandeleur.

The Sun Herald received a report from Ocean Springs attorney Scott Taylor that what appeared to be tar balls were washing ashore in great numbers at Sand Island, one of the smallest of the state’s barrier islands, near the eastern end of the chain, between Horn and Petit Bois islands.

But Bill Walker, director of the state Department of Marine Resources, said tar balls from the Gulf spill “shouldn’t be happening yet,” although he “has no clue” as to what the black balls Taylor found are. A sample of Taylor’s find was being delivered to a DMR agent Thursday and Walker said they’d investigate.

Walker said if they are oil tar balls, “they’re probably not part of this spill.”

“It may be from a different release, or somebody was out there changing their oil and threw it overboard,” Walker said. “I don’t think we’ll ever see any crude oil reach our shore, unless this thing leaks forever or more starts pumping out. What we might see on our shore, besides a sheen, is a heavy emulsion. That’s not good, but it’s better than crude oil.”

Taylor, who had let his 5- and 10-year old boys skip school for what he fears might be the last boat excursion for a while, described what he saw: black, oily balls, the consistency of clay and ranging in size from quarter- to baseball-sized washing in “everywhere” on Sand Island. He and the kids gathered a garbage bagful.

“I’ve been coming out here for 20 years, and I’ve never seen this ...” Taylor said.

Taylor said he called the state DMR oil-spill hotline, but whomever answered was nonplussed and gave him a number for BP. He said the person on the BP hotline said, “I’m sorry, sir, but I don’t know what tar balls are.” Taylor said he called back later and got someone else who took his info and coordinates.

Napolitano and Barbour on Thursday assured that everything that could be done to protect Mississippi is being done. Miles of boom have been stretched across sensitive shorelines, although their efficacy is dependent on seas remaining calm, a doubtful proposition this time of year in the state’s shallow sound.

Napolitano said the federal government is riding herd on BP, which is continuing to try to skim, burn and disperse the oil and staunch the 5,000-barrel-a-day flow a mile below the surface.

But BP and the government are admittedly trying to adapt shallow-water spill containment techniques to an uprecedented deepwater gusher, and results reported so far appear minimal.

BP is currently trying to reduce the flow of the busted wellhead with a cofferdam, like a hat or funnel, it’s trying to place over the worst leak. Napolitano noted, as BP officials have, that this has never been done on a spill so deep.

“I hope it works,” she said. “We are proceeding as if it won’t.”

Barbour again urged Mississippians not to panic, noted that the weather on the Coast has been beautiful, a major pro golf tournament was just played here and that “our waters are open for fishing, by the way.”

Barbour said that 5,000 barrels of oil a week seep from the Gulf’s floor naturally, and that nature takes care of it.

“If it comes ashore, then we’ve got to deal with it,” Barbour said. “It could be a catastrophe ... but maybe it won’t be.”

Napolitano and Barbour were asked for best-case, worst-case scenarios.

Both said that, best case, little of the oil would ever reach sensitive land.

Barbour said that worst-case for Mississippi, oil in harmful concentrations would get into sensitive marshlands and mouths of bays, “where the juvenile shrimp are right now.” He vowed that state, federal and local leaders would battle that with a “multilayered defense.”

U.S. Commerce Secretary Gary Locke told the media that BP would be held financially accountable for the spill.

“We understand a lot of livelihoods are on the line, not just fishermen ... but with tourism,” Locke said. “BP is the ultimately responsible party ... responsible for making the entire region whole again.”

Locke stressed that Commerce has closed off appropriate fishing areas and is stringently testing Gulf seafood, so people should not be afraid to eat it.

“The seafood harvested now, in stores, on shelves, in restaurants, is indeed safe,” Locke said.

Lt. Gov. Phil Bryant, who watched but did not participate in the press conference, said he has been meeting with Coast tourism officials, and wants to launch an advertising campaign letting people know they should still vacation on Mississippi shores.

If that changes because of oil contamination, he said, his job as a top lawmaker will be to help calculate Mississippi’s economic losses and make sure BP pays. He said he has met with BP leaders and they have so far been cooperative and indicated they expect to pay up to $8 billion.

NOAA Administrator Jane Lubchenco, at the press conference with Barbour and Napolitano, said “landfall in Mississippi is unlikely for the next couple of days,” because winds and seas are fairly stable and the main oil slick was moving slowly northward and to the west.

Walker said his latest info was that the earliest Mississippi islands would see even “a sheen” of the spill would be Sunday.

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