Special Reports

Oil spotted in Mississippi marsh

WAVELAND, Miss. — Oily goo coated grass along Jackson Marsh on Thursday as quarter-sized tar patties and oily sheen floated southward with the tide back into the Gulf.

It’s the first Mississippi marsh area to be invaded by the oil from the Deepwater Horizon spill, said Sen. Roger Wicker, R-Miss., as he surveyed the site with his wife, Gayle.

But also on Thursday, officials with the Grand Bay National Estuarian Research Reserve in east Jackson County reported oily tar and sheen entering marshes there, at Pointe Aux Chenne Bay, although the extent of the intrusion there was difficult to judge because the waterways are shallow and difficult to navigate.

Hancock County District 1 Supervisor David Yarborough and Waveland Mayor Tommy Longo requested in mid-June that the oil disaster command build a sand berm on the north side of Beach Boulevard and silt fencing at the outfall.

Both protective measures have been promised, though they’ve seen neither.

“It was ignored,” Yarborough said. “Nobody did anything.”

Wicker said he requested an OK from U.S. Coast Cmdr. Jason Merriweather, the state’s deputy incident commander, for immediate permission and funding to implement the local authorities’ plans.

Mississippi’s oil disaster plan from early on was to spot and fight the oil beyond the barrier islands, and try to prevent it from entering the Mississippi Sound and, more importantly, any marshlands.

So far, that plan has not appeared to work.

Weeks ago, oil and tar began landing on barrier islands without being spotted beforehand.

Gov. Haley Barbour and others said they got a “wake-up call” that the BP-Coast Guard command didn’t have enough boats and aircraft looking for oil headed here. BP supplied more boats, and the state and feds stepped up air surveillance.

Soon after, oil and tar began entering the Mississippi Sound, and state leaders appeared surprised to learn the BP operation didn’t have skimmers on hand to help with the state’s plan of keeping it from landing on mainland beaches.

The state is buying and leasing what will be a fleet of 27 skimmers, with the first eight already delivered and more coming online in the next few weeks.

Meanwhile, oily tar has been landing on beaches — including some large amounts in the Long Beach-Pass Christian area on Wednesday.

Local government leaders in recent weeks have said it appears BP and the federal government are focused on cleaning up after oil hits beaches and marshes and is leaving any protection and that prevention up to them.

State Rep. Brandon Jones, D-Pascagoula, said Thursday that oil fouling Mississippi marshes on Thursday is a sign that “our response is starting to look like its own little disaster.”

“It’s kind of a results-oriented thing,” Jones said. “Setting up a perimeter around the islands, that sounded great. But then oil comes in one Saturday, and nobody’s there to welcome it, much less to stop it. And here we are weeks later, still having discussions about getting skimmers and where they are going to be, and oil washing into marshes ... It’s one thing not to be ready on day one. But it’s a whole other animal not to be ready on day 70-something.”

Dan Turner, spokesman for Barbour, on Thursday said “resources have been a problem” since early on.

“But second guessing what has occurred up until now will not get us where we need to be,” Turner said. “We are contracting to build skimmers, we have leased skimmers and we have people who are trained and ready to go ... One thing we can’t do is throw up our hands and say it’s unavoidable. We can go out and try to collect as much as we can, with skimmers...whatever resources we can. The real concern is still capping the well. This is going to be a long-term challenge.”

Longo said oil at Jackson Marsh could easily make its way to the other bayous, streams and lagoons.

“It’s the end all to a lot of tributaries that meander into Hancock County,” he said.

Shoreline Cleanup Assessment Teams were expected to start cleaning the Jackson Marsh soon, but neither Longo or Yarborough knew when that might begin.

Mississippi Department of Environmental Quality spokesman Robbie Wilbur said the oil was confined to the grass just north of the road where the culvert drains, with less than a quarter acre of oiled vegetation visible.