This morning I attended the press conference at the Escambia County Emergency Operations Center (EOC) where Senator Bill Nelson gave the briefing. It was refreshing to hear a politician talk straight and tell the truth about what is happening (for a change). There is bad news and there is some encouraging news to share. I’ll mix it up a bit, so you don’t get too overwhelmed with the bad news.
First of all, the oil came into Pensacola Pass yesterday and has been found in grapefruit-sized globs all the way to the Pensacola Beach bridge. A scientist at the EPA lab on Pensacola Beach (west of the bridge) reported that they have a little string of boom along their shore (I call it sausage boom, which is what you see everywhere and it is completely unhelpful as it’s only about one foot in diameter. It is the stuff they use on construction sites) and the waves are going right over it. The oil is all along the shore at the EPA lab, which is very disheartening to the scientists who work there, but don’t you think that the EPA could muster up a little bit better protection for their own real-estate?
We are told that we can expect to have oil coming ashore for at least the next few days. There is a huge island of oil right offshore, about 40 miles long and almost 2 miles wide and at least a foot thick that is rolling our way. The heat index is between 105 and 109 degrees, which at least helps to volatilize some of the oil. Escambia has finally received the heavy equipment that it requested from BP, which will be used to clean up the oil on the shoreline. It has been 7 weeks since the equipment was requested.
Senator Nelson said that he has been very critical of the command and control structure for the oil disaster. The Coast Guard has had 51% of the control and BP the rest. The Coast Guard (CG) has essentially been dysfunctional and has frustrated everyone. He feels that the structure is changing and that Escambia County at least is getting better communication from the CG over the past couple of days. He said the situation reached crisis level last week when the oil entered Perdido Pass and none of the local governments were given any warning. This means that the CG was not even watching the oil from helicopters and reporting its proximity to shore. Since then, a representative from Escambia County is working from the Incident Command Center in Mobile, AL and will hopefully facilitate communications. An upper level Escambia County administrator told me that the county has not received one penny from the state or federal government, or BP to date to pay for protecting their shores or waters or to cover the cost of dealing with this disaster.
Senator Nelson said that we can expect this situation to continue for many months if not years and that a well coordinated command center is critical. AMEN!!!
Senator Nelson reported that Congressional reps from the oil states are making it difficult to change the limit on BP’s liability to cover the damages. President Obama is expected to announce tomorrow that he is expecting BP to set up a $20 Billion trust fund to cover damages. He said it could be like a “New Deal” type of economic plan for the Gulf Coast and Nelson said the President would be telling us more about it this week. The immediate goal is to get claims paid quicker, either by a third party or by the government. The claims cannot continue to be administered by BP. Resources are not being deployed!!! He will also announce that the first steps will be taken to wean the US from oil. Nelson said the disaster is giving the President the political muscle he needs to move our country toward a more sustainable energy policy.
As I sit here typing this report, wave after wave of oil is washing ashore in Orange Beach, AL and there is not one skimmer boat in site. Nelson said this is because command and control at the CG is not working. They had no idea if there were any skimmer boats available when asked. Fortunately the Dutch government is sending their skimmer boats to us but they will not arrive until next month. They keep boats and booms (big ones, 8 ft in diameter) on hand in case of an accident. Isn’t that a novel idea?
I was happy to hear Sen. Nelson say the same thing that the CWN-FL has been saying for 6 weeks, which is that it’s important to keep the oil as far offshore as possible, where it can be up taken by skimmer boats, etc. He said, as we have been saying, that it should not be allowed to reach the beaches if at all possible. I still have not recovered from hearing Mike Sole and Charlie Crist say that our beaches are our best booms for stopping the oil. Arghhh!!! Nelson said that the oil should have been intercepted 25 or 50 miles offshore with skimmer boats and kept away, but unfortunately the state and federal government has had no interest in protecting our shores – AT ALL!!!
He told the reporters that the rest of the state has time to get ready before the oil reaches their shores and they should get ready. If you are reading this and you live beyond the panhandle, then please make your local government take action. Also, keep letting Governor Crist and DEP Sec. Mike Sole know that our beaches are not going to be Florida’s “best booms” and we expect them to wake up and get busy. Sen. Nelson does not think that any coast in Florida is safe from the oil. He said that the local governments need to be embedded in the nearest command center so they can be heard by the CG regarding what is needed by local governments. He also said that the White House seems to be catching on and that he expects their response to improve once the trust fund is in place.
Nelson said the big unknown right now is what is below the surface of the ocean. We know from the USF research that there are large plumes under the surface of the water which are moving far and wide. Also the oil tends to float in the day time when it’s warm outside and then at night it changes and tends to sink to the bottom.
The biggest problem we have right now and that is keeping us from protecting our coasts is that there is no clear chain of command. So therefore there has been no order for the skimmer boat to skim for instance. Also there are only a few boats available (he said there are three off the coast of Florida). He said that Pres. Obama has now put the CG in control. Yesterday, Escambia County’s coastal waters were put off limits for fishing and swimming.
Last week Nelson reported in an interview with Andrea Mitchell that the oil is bubbling up from the seabed around the pipe and that this is hugely troubling. When asked about that this morning, Nelson said that he believes that then they get down to the well and get it killed, the the oil will stop. [I independently asked a Gulf of Mexico ship captain with over 30 years in the industry, if this is possible. It sounds impossible. But he said that it is completely possible and that when BP gets the new wells in place that it should work just right. This is a person that I trust to tell me the truth. Apparently the well is some 18,000 feet below the floor of the ocean and yet they can still pump concrete down that far, with enough pressure to reverse the flow of the oil and gas and make the whole thing stop flowing. I’m very relieved to hear this from someone that I trust.]
So – that’s what I learned this morning. I’ll share more news as I learn more. I can’t tell you how much I appreciated hearing a briefing from Sen. Nelson. He was honest, straight-forward, and very knowledgeable. He confirmed everything that we have been saying for the past six weeks, which was not necessarily good news, but it tells me that the information we’ve been getting is accurate and we have been offering the correct advice to our members.
It seems to me that if our federal government, via the CG will kick into gear and get money to our local governments, then we can begin protecting our shores and waters. The state of Florida seems to be almost totally dysfunctional, from what I can tell. Maybe that will change.
Yesterday I went out on the Navarre Beach pier and it was teaming with marine life. I don’t know if all the animals are being pushed this way to avoid the oil or if they were excited about the new, longest pier in Florida. But in one hour I saw at least a dozen dolphins, a huge sea turtle, hundreds of thousands of fish, an enormous manta-ray, several barracudas, and lots of big fish being caught (mackerel, etc). It was heart-warming to see all that sea life and also extremely troubling to think that they could soon all be dead. I got into the Gulf myself and swam for about an hour and nothing bad happened to me (so far). I was concerned that there could be dispersants in the water, but didn’t detect anything. I’m not planning to go back in anytime soon, but I wanted to go swimming in the Gulf one more time. Normally, this time of year, I would be swimming in the Gulf every day after work and on weekends, and I miss that. However, this is not about me. An incredible ecosystem is being destroyed and I don’t know what the chances for recovery may be.
In closing, if you live in a coastal county of Florida – PLEASE MAKE YOUR LOCAL GOVERNMENT GET PREPARED FOR THE OIL. It will very likely be on your beach sooner or later.
For all of our waters,