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Florida county leaders' complaints on spill cleanup still unheeded

TAMPA — Local and state officials are still finding flaws in the way BP and the Coast Guard are responding to oil washing ashore across the Florida Panhandle, they said Thursday.

There aren't enough skimmers, or the skimmers are in the wrong place, or the skimmers don't work. Local officials ask questions and either get no answers or conflicting answers. And last week BP changed the way local governments could get reimbursed for dealing with the damage caused by the Deepwater Horizon disaster, disrupting a process that had been in place since April.

Frustrated members of the Florida Association of Counties, meeting in Tampa this week, voted Thursday evening to support sweeping changes in the way the oil spill response is handled so that local governments get more of a voice in where money and resources are used.

"Locals should be in control," the association's statement says. "They are the experts on their community and know best their environment and citizen demands."

The needs are basic, but urgent. Escambia County Commissioner Wilson Robertson, whose county's white-sand beaches have been repeatedly blackened by gooey oil, said, "We need some skimmers under our control. We just can't rely on the (Coast Guard) command center in Mobile to tell us all the skimmers are over in Orange Beach (Alabama)."

"Amen," said Mike Sole, secretary of the state Department of Environmental Protection.

Sole, the state's point man on dealing with the spill, said the response has improved, but there are still logistical bungles aplenty.

"Time and again, we report that there's product in the bay and there are no skimmers available," Sole said. "Or we've got 10 miles of beaches impacted by tar balls and they send 10 people to clean it up."

Many times, Sole said, he would be on the phone with the BP and Coast Guard officials in charge, warning them to have skimmer boats in place the next morning, only to learn the next day that the skimmers didn't show up.

"A lot of the skimmers we have don't work on the (oil) we have, because it's too weathered" from being in the Gulf of Mexico so long, Sole said.

BP had a representative at the meeting, Ray Dempsey, who said he had gotten "a great education in the last 24 hours. While I knew things were not going perfectly, some of what I heard I didn't know."

At one point an aide to Sen. Bill Nelson, D-Fla., questioned whether Dempsey could promise that the nine counties that have already submitted claims to BP for money they spent protecting their shorelines would get a check by today.

Dempsey said no, but by the end of the next day the company's claims experts should be done reviewing the applications to see if they were complete.

"We'll know by tomorrow whether we're ready to issue the checks," he said. "If by the end of next week those counties don't know money is on the way, they should come and find me and smack me in the head and I will make it right."

Dempsey told county officials he had been very happy to get the invitation to their meeting, despite the reception he received. "I have to say I'm not getting many invitations to parties lately," he joked.

Florida county leaders' complaints on spill cleanup still unheeded 07/01/10 [Last modified: Thursday, July 1, 2010 10:27pm]
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