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BP plan to protect Florida from oil spill inadequate, officials say

PENSACOLA

Frustrated local and state officials complained Sunday that the BP-led plan for protecting Florida's coastline from a massive oil spill was incomplete and failed to allow for input from people who know the coast best.

State Department of Environmental Protection Secretary Mike Sole traveled to Mobile, Ala., to meet with BP's top executive and Rear Adm. Mary Landry of the U.S. Coast Guard to register his complaints.

"A lot of the decisions about Florida are being made in Mobile," Sole said. "I told them, 'Florida is important. We have 770 miles of shoreline to protect. I'm concerned that we're not getting enough focus on Florida.' "

Pensacola is the place officials fear that oil spilled since April 20 from the Deepwater Horizon rig will first ooze ashore in Florida — some time, projections say, between today and Wednesday.

In response to complaints from Escambia County officials that they had not been consulted about BP oil company's plans to deploy 75,000 feet of booms around the Pensacola region to protect the coast, Sole said: "I haven't seen the plan, either."

To brace for the potential calamity, hundreds of people around Pensacola signed up for classes on cleaning up oil that washes ashore, many scoured beaches to gather debris, and officials hurried to plug gaps in those plans to stave off damage.

"I never thought I'd see this day," said Capt. J.R. Hinojosa, who runs the Blue Marlin Water Taxi on Pensacola Beach. "I would have thought that there were better safety measures on the rigs."

Hinojosa was one of about 40 people who showed up at the Pensacola Civic Center on Sunday afternoon to take a four-hour course in how to clean up any oil that washes onto the beach. Another 450 people have signed up for 10 more classes, which are being paid for by BP.

The work, warned teacher Steve Fruchtman of Beck Disaster Recovery, will require protective suits that cover the volunteers from head to toe, even when the temperature tops 80 degrees. Fruchtman said he would teach the volunteers how to deal with "potential exposure to hazardous substances."

At one point early in the class, Fruchtman warned that even the air at the beach could become toxic: "If anything happens where a supervisor determines conditions have changed and it's unsafe, they're going to ask you to leave."

He gave the volunteers a chance to walk out. Nobody did.

"We do hope to be on the front lines," explained one of them, Laura Catterton, a Humane Society animal rescuer.

Pensacolians are used to rallying from a disaster. The first Spanish settlers, who arrived before St. Augustine was founded, were wiped out by a hurricane. Another hurricane, Ivan, dealt the city a crushing blow in 2004 from which it only recently recovered. But this crisis is unlike any in its history.

Keith Wilkins, a county official helping coordinate the volunteers, compared it to a hurricane "in ultra-slow motion. We're talking about something that's going to be a three-month or six-month event, not just a 36-hour event."

Even if Pensacola dodges contamination this week, he noted, that's no guarantee it won't show up later. All efforts to shut off the pipes gushing oil from a mile beneath the surface of the Gulf of Mexico have failed, and the only remaining options will take from days to months to complete.

Adding to the worry, people in Pensacola are unsure whether the folks in charge of protecting their coastline know what they're up against.

"I've been working for the county for 10 years, and nobody ever asked my input to that plan," Wilkins said.

The official plan calls for deploying booms to protect the region's passes as well as the state and national parks, he explained.

Crews anchored a series of booms in the gulf to deflect the approaching oil, "but some of those have already washed up on the beach," he said.

Local officials see gaps in the official plan. "There are coastal wetlands and lots of sea grass beds that need to be protected, too, and bayous and lagoons that need protection," Wilkins said.

County officials have proposed setting out booms in a V-formation in those areas, to funnel the oil to a central collection point in calmer waters. So far, he said, state and BP officials have promised to consider the suggestion.

Residents were doing what they could to get ready for the unthinkable.

Despite blustery winds that had lifeguards posting rip current warnings, hundreds showed up at Pensacola Beach and nearby Perdido Key — not to swim, but to clean up debris to which oil might stick.

Although the work was hastily organized, the volunteers filled a container the size of a railroad car to the brim with beer cans, discarded diapers and other debris.

Nearby, a real estate sales office had posted on its sign what most in the city were thinking: "Pray for the wind to blow away any oil that comes our way."

Even the slightest taint on the famous sugar-white sands is a disaster for the environment and the economy. Capt. Hinojosa runs a sightseeing boat for tourists who want to see dolphins. If it weren't for the looming threat, he would be happy about what he saw when he was out last.

"There are millions of them out there now, because they just had their babies in the last couple of weeks," he said. "And the sea turtles are just showing up to lay their eggs."

By Sunday, officials reported BP had deployed more than 275,000 feet of boom throughout the gulf to try to contain the spill.

But that, too, proved to some to be grievously inadequate off the Louisiana coast.

Off Breton Sound, La., Lorne LeBouef stood on a boat named Aqua-holic and raised a thin, frayed section of yellow polyurethane rope.

"This is what BP sent us out here with," the 43-year-old Violet, La., oysterman shouted in frustration to a passing boat. "Don't hold nothing, it keeps popping in the current."

For more than an hour, he and the crews of two other boats struggled to pull about 1,200 yards of floating barriers across Anderson Point, a choppy section of water he and his family have been dredging for years.

The boaters sunk anchors to try to keep the barriers steady. Rough waters snapped the thin, plastic anchor ropes doled out by a contractor for BP, leaving the fishermen to string it again.

Nature did not cooperate Sunday, dumping stinging rain and blowing 22-mph winds.

In nearby DeSoto Bayou, water lapped over booms. And these were protected waters where waves were only a few feet.

Farther out, swells rose to 12 feet. A picture in Sunday's New Orleans Times-Picayune showed a pile of these orange floats tangled near the mouth of the Mississippi River, raising more questions about the effectiveness of all this work.

"I don't know if it's gonna do anything," 43-year-old fisherman Mark Tinney said as he prepared to leave Breton Sound Marina for the waters. "But you have to try."

BP plan to protect Florida from oil spill inadequate, officials say 05/02/10 [Last modified: Monday, May 3, 2010 5:54pm]

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