Special Reports

Nelson: Feds must take control of spill response

SARASOTA — U.S. Sen. Bill Nelson urged local officials Saturday to steel themselves for the “likely eventuality” that oil from the Gulf of Mexico spill soon will wash up on beaches in Manatee and Sarasota counties.

The federal government’s job, he said, is to wrest control of the cleanup operation from BP and install leadership that will help, not hinder, the efforts of communities affected by the country’s largest offshore spill.

“I hope by the time this thing ever gets here — and let’s hope it never gets here — that you all will have that authority and this command structure will be worked out where there’s one person who’s responsible,” Nelson, D-Fla., said.

“The Coast Guard is doing all it can, but you can’t have a command structure if BP is not under your authority.”

Nelson spoke for about 90 minutes Saturday afternoon to a group of 30 government officials at Ringling Museum of Art. He said southwest Florida has the “gift of time” to prepare for the spill’s arrival.

Nelson said the best way to prevent ecological devastation along the Florida coast is to skim oil off the surface of the water out in the Gulf. But even those efforts are being thwarted by poor coordination of private boats, he said.

Nelson urged President Barack Obama to implement a military chain of command to respond to the spill.

“You see me get frustrated in my interviews on TV. I’m merely expressing the frustrations of our people,” Nelson said. “When the incident command in Mobile (Ala.) does not let the emergency operations center in Escambia County, Pensacola, know that oil has come in through Perdido Pass, that’s a failure of command and control.”

Charlie Hunsicker, the incident commander for Manatee County’s oil response team, said Nelson’s visit served as a call to mobilize local residents who have expressed an interest in volunteering in the cleanup effort.

“Sen. Nelson today told us to take the fight to the oil, to intercept it at sea,” Hunsicker said.

Nelson said he is fighting to hold BP financially responsible for the spill. He and other senators sent a letter demanding the oil giant set up a $20 billion trust fund for claims of economic hardship as a result of the spill.

He said the federal government let BP take the lead in the immediate response to the spill because only the oil company knew — or claimed to know — how to cap the well.

“We put ourselves in a position where we’re at the mercy of BP to get the well turned off. ... This is going to be a very painful lesson,” Nelson said.