Special Reports

Oil from Gulf spill hits Mississippi, threatens Alabama

BILOXI — Oil from the Deepwater Horizon disaster hit Mississippi shores for the first time Tuesday, covering about 2 miles of Petit Bois Island’s beach.

A larger glob crept close to Dauphin Island in Alabama, and the edge of the main slick has moved to within about 35 miles of Mississippi, about half the distance it was last week.

On Tuesday evening, the state departments of Marine Resources and Environmental Quality, effective immediately, closed portions of eastern state waters to commercial and recreational fishing, the first such closures for Mississippi since the oil disaster more than a month ago.

Gov. Haley Barbour said the “caramel-colored” strand of oil that hit Petit Bois was about a meter wide and 2-miles long and had escaped detection because it was floating a couple of feet below the surface.

Barbour said about 90 workers were sent to Petit Bois, but storms Tuesday delayed the start of cleanup. He said they should be able to clean all the oil off the island today.

Barbour said the oil appears to be “emulsified, weathered and beat-up” and “we are told it’s not toxic” and that workers should be able to scoop it up with shovels.

The governor continued with what has become his mantra about the spill: No one in Mississippi should panic; tourists should continue to come and the national media should stop making it sound like “we are ankle-deep in oil ... like this is Armageddon.” This message, which Barbour and the leaders of state agencies repeat, has astounded some local elected leaders and environmentalists.

But Barbour said cancellations at hotels, restaurants, fishing charters and other attractions “are at a record pace, and the reason is they think we are inundated with oil or that it’s imminent, and that’s just not the case.” He said this is “unfair to the people of the Coast.”

“This could turn out to be something catastrophic and terrible, but that has just not been the case so far,” Barbour said. “We are prepared to fight off a big oil spill, but so far we haven’t had to.”

Barbour said a large oil slick had been spotted over the weekend about 11 miles south of Horn Island, and it’s believed the strand that hit Petit Bois “broke off” from that. The larger slick on Tuesday had moved to within about 3 miles of Dauphin Island as winds continue to come from the south and southwest.

Dr. Bill Walker, head of the state Department of Marine Resources, said his agency and others have boats and National Guard aircraft out investigating reports of oil sightings, but that most of them turn out to be false, often just clumps of algae.

Walker said Mississippi has protected its most vulnerable marshland habitat with boom, but that the oil washing ashore in Louisiana has shown that oil will breach the boom if seas are choppy.

“We are looking for some larger boom, some ocean-quality boom, but it is not available to us yet,” Walker said. “We would put this across our bays and rivers. Very little of it is being used anywhere, some has been deployed in Louisiana and we have a small amount around Ship Island in Mississippi. We’re trying to see if the military can provide it to us.”

Walker has said that as bad as it may seem, the best plan may be to allow oil to wash onto sandy beach areas on the barrier islands or mainland shore, where it can more easily be removed than if it gets into sensitive marsh areas.

Walker, in a recent interview with the Sun Herald, said that Mississippi is “taking a different tack” from neighboring states, and he questions the efficacy of some of their actions.

“Alabama activated a whole bunch of guardsmen who went out and distributed stuff out on Dauphin Island that, in my professional opinion, is counterproductive,” Walker said. “They put these mats out on the waterline that are supposed to be absorbing oil. They’ve never been tested in a marine environment. They are designed to clean up storm water, and I’m told by experts that they will not absorb the emulsified oil and will instead work as physical barriers. So if the oil is trying to get on the island, it will stay in the water, then move wherever the water goes. Our concern in Mississippi is that currents would then carry it into the areas we are trying to keep it out of. It’s easy to clean up a man-made beach. It’s hard to clean up a marsh.”

Petit Bois is part of the Gulf Islands National Seashore, along with East Ship, West Ship, Horn island and part of Cat Island and areas in Florida.

Alexis Brooks, public information officer for GINS, said workers have placed boom and made other preparations, but “to a certain extent it’s a matter of waiting to see what happens.”

Barbour said the state had planned to call for skimmer boats and boats dragging boom to be put on standby when any large amounts of oil got to within 20 miles of Mississippi shores. But he said that will happen today with oil within 35 miles.

DMR and DEQ closed to fishing an area from the mouth of Grave line Bayou south clipping the west tip of Horn Island, from the CSX bridge in Pascagoula, all the way to Alabama. Waters from Dog Keys Pass back to the west will remain open.DMR also announced that shrimp season will open Thursday at 6 a.m. in Mississippi waters west of the East Biloxi ship channel, but warned that these waters may close on short notice if it is detected that oil is moving into the area.

“This is the first significant amount of oil residue to hit Mississippi,” Barbour said. “While it’s the first, it probably won’t be the last.”