GULFPORT, Miss. — What South Mississippi officials had been fearing for weeks came true Sunday when large, gooey globs of weathered oil, chocolate-colored oil patties and tar balls washed ashore in quantity along the Mississippi Coast.
Emergency managers scrambled to win approval for stronger protection of inland waterways, more skimming equipment in Mississippi waters and installation of absorbent material, also to keep oil out of inland waterways.
Local officials were livid that the oil had made it ashore.
Connie Moran, the mayor of Ocean Springs, Miss., said the city would consider taking further action itself to protect the sensitive marshes and beaches of Jackson County, whose coastline runs from Biloxi to the border with Alabama. She blamed the organization that combines the Coast Guard and BP into a so-called unified command for allowing the oil to drift into the beaches.
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“The unified command’s failure to skim the oil north of Horn Island yesterday is inept and inexcusable,” Moran said. “Had they deployed those resources, the impact to Jackson County would’ve been far less today."
She said she had asked the Coast Guard to assign skimmers and support vessels to monitor the Mississippi Sound at the mouth of the Biloxi Bay.
"There’s still stuff out there that we can’t even see because of all the dispersant," she said. "This is just outrageous and unacceptable.”
Mississippi had largely escaped the onslaught of the Deepwater Horizon oil slick, even as shoreline in Louisiana, Alabama and Florida was washed by both thick gooey crude or thousands of tar balls.
But on Sunday, that respite ended.
“The amount of oil moving into Mississippi waters has greatly increased in the last several days, and the prevailing winds that cause the oil and its residue to move in our direction are predicted to continue, at least until the middle of the week,” Gov. Haley Barbour said in a statement. “We continue to press the federal Unified Command and BP to increase the amount of resources available to attack the oil beginning as far south as possible, through the passes, into the sound, and in the mouths of the bays"
Barbour, who once confidently predicted that the oil would skirt Mississippi, rushed back to the state on Friday from a fundraising tour he was making on behalf of Republican candidates. Sunday said the state was prepared to move alone if the federal government couldn't provide more resources.
“While command and control of on-water resources has improved, it must get much better, and the amount of resources to attack the oil offshore must be greatly increased," he said. "Under the circumstances, we are taking some of that into our own hands.”
The state is having skimmers built that the Mississippi Department of Environmental Quality hopes to put in the water by July 5.
Meanwhile, U.S. Rep. Gene Taylor, D-Miss., continued to press into service an Environmental Protection Agency plane with infrared equipment that has not been cleared yet by Unified Command in Mobile, Ala., to spot oil in Mississippi waters. The plane flew out Saturday and Sunday to calibrate equipment, zeroing in on masses and streams of oil while crisscrossing Mississippi waters for more than two hours.
Satellite equipment on the plane, the only one of its kind in the nation, can immediately provide the location of oil to the Coast Guard to coordinate response. Without such equipment, Taylor’s office said, cleanup vessels have basically been playing Marco Polo with the oil.
The airplane's equipment detected large patches and streams of oil Sunday morning from Pascagoula to Biloxi, anywhere from five to 11 miles off shore. Scientists responsible for the equipment and data interpretation from the airplane put the images gathered on Google Earth, where they can be viewed by the public. The scientific team has been working with the Coast Guard in Louisiana through Region VI of EPA, which includes that state.
They said the airplane was initially brought in to monitor airborne chemicals, but infrared equipment on-board has proved exceptionally good at detecting and differentiating between heavy oil, oil mixed with water and even weathered oil.
“The real issue is getting these skimmers in the right location,” said chemist Bob Kroutil, a member of EPA’s Airborne Spectral Photometric Environmental Collection Technology team.
Rupert Lacy, the emergency manger in Harrison County, said the Mississippi Coast is still waiting for more skimming power to suck up oil that is being corralled near shore. Harrison County is the most populous of the three coastal counties in Mississippi that border the Mississippi Sound.
“We’re going to have oil on the beach this week,” Lacy said. “Some of this they have not captured, we will see showing up. Until they can get the well capped and capture the oil offshore, we will have little splotches that will come to the sand and we’ll get it cleaned up.”
Oil also was massing between Horn and Ship Islands, two barrier islands in the federally protected Gulf Islands National Seashore chain that stretches from Florida to Mississippi.
Ocean Springs Mayor Moran said BP contractors had no skimmers in the water Saturday to sucj up the oil before it reached the shoreline, bays and inlets.
“They promised us they would be fighting oil at the passes,” she said, "and they were not there.”
The oil was taking a toll on shore birds. An oiled pelican also was found Saturday near the Lake Mars Landing pier and was taken away by state marine, wildlife and fisheries officials for rehab.
On Sunday, pelicans flew over the beached oil patches and mullet could be seen swimming around the shallow waters. Three boats with skimming equipment arrived after abut three hours to try to collect the weather oil, patties and tar balls that had reached the areas around Belle Fontaine beach and Lake Mars Landing.
Other weathered oil was found Sunday on both sides of Deer Island, officials confirmed.
Moran and a couple of city aldermen — John Gill and Fred "Chic" Cody — met at Harbor Landing Yacht Club on Sunday afternoon along with a state environmental official, the Coast Guard and others the city had hired for their own cleanup to discuss immediate ways to fight the oil.
Ocean Springs already has installed protective fencing in some areas and other oil absorbent materials to protect estuaries and marshes, but Mayor Moran, Gill and Cody said more needs to be done.
Moran said she’s tired of getting the same old response from BP officials about there being “more oil out there than we can handle."
She added, “Now that they are so unclear about who’s in charge, we want to know what we can do to clean it up ourselves.”
Alderman Gill later asked Coast Guard Lt. Mike St. Jeanos whether the city could “count on Unified Command to have assets” for the city.
In response, St. Jeanos said, “My answer to that is we don’t know. Unfortunately, ... That is probably an honest answer. If I had control of it, I’d have a boat skimming off Horn Island.”
St. Jeanos later said that the chain of command does work and that the Coast Guard is ultimately in control, but Gill said the city’s moving forward with their own efforts.
“We are not waiting on BP and the Coast Guard,” he said. “We are ready to move.”
Brandon James, a resident of Gulf Park Estates, brought his two nephews and one of their friends to Lake Mars Landing on Sunday. He said he wanted to show the children first-hand what’s happening in the Mississippi waters where he’s spent many years fishing and boating.
“It’s really sad,” James said. “I just had a baby girl. She’s 9 months old, and she’s not going to be able to play in her younger years in the water. That’s what hurts me most. I’ve lived here and I’ve worked here. We don’t know how long this is going to last, and you just don’t know what it’s going to do to people.”
Added his nephew, Damon James: “I know we won’t be able to go fishing out here anymore. We won’t be able to go swimming on the beaches anymore. That’s scary.”