Hurricane season bears down on BP Gulf oil spill

The season’s first tropical weather system is disrupting cleanup efforts and has raised the anxiety level along the Gulf Coast. Where's the emergency storm plan, some officials are asking?

Gerald Herbert/AP
Vice President Joe Biden, accompanied by Federal on-scene coordinator, Coast Guard Rear Admiral James Watson, tours the Unified Command Center in response to the Deepwater Horizon oil spill Tuesday in New Orleans.

Vice President Joe Biden arrived in New Orleans Tuesday for his first visit to the BP oil spill disaster zone just as the season’s first tropical weather system disrupted cleanup efforts and raised anxieties along the Gulf Coast.

Meeting recently-unemployed seafood workers outside the closed Pome’s Seafood crab-processing plant in eastern New Orleans, Biden said the Obama administration will continue to support the Gulf region well after the out-of-control BP oil will is finally capped.

“We’re going to make it whole – we ain’t leaving,” said Biden.

IN PICTURES: The Gulf oil spill's impact on nature

Among other issues, Biden promised greater coordination between state and federal oversight of fishing waters in the Gulf affected in the spill, so fishermen will be able to more easily fish and sell their catch from waters deemed safe. Biden later traveled to Pensacola Beach, Florida. His visit to the Gulf is the most recent of over fifty trips by administration officials since the oil well disaster started in April.

In Louisiana, however, many local officials and residents continue to voice frustration over the official response, as anxieties rise over the specter of an oil-laden hurricane season. Although tropical storm Alex was five hundred miles away and not yet ranked as a hurricane, on Tuesday it kicked up fifteen foot seas and twenty-five mile an hour winds off Louisiana, pushing more oil ashore.

Local officials are frustrated

Just a few miles down Chef Mentur Highway from Pome’s Seafood, St. Tammany Parish president Kevin Davis was scrambling to protect Lake Pontchartrain from encroaching oil slicks. For weeks, the parish has been asking for approval to deploy a new type of oil absorbent boom, called X-Tex, which has been used successfully on the Mississippi coast, with no response from BP or the Coast Guard.

“We need to know who’s in charge and what role does the federal government play in this” said Davis.

In St. Bernard Parish, parish president Craig Taffaro decried the federal response and what he called "photo ops” by high-ranking federal officials.

“They need to be down here not just for a sound bite, but stay here until this job is finished,” he said.

As the Fourth of July holiday weekend approaches, communities across the Gulf Coast that should be enjoying the height of their summer season are instead bracing for incoming oil, including areas that have been previously unaffected by the spill.

On Tuesday, heavy oil washed into unspoiled mashes in St. Bernard and Jefferson parishes. In Alabama, long lines of heavy crude and tar balls came ashore on white beaches. In Mississippi, beaches near Biloxi were closed to swimming and fishing for the first time due to the oil. Skimmers, barges, and other boats involved with the oil cleanup were forced into port, and hundreds of miles of protective boom were rendered mostly useless.

Coast Guard Adm. Thad Allen, the federal official overseeing the government’s spill response, said Alex was not expected to affect relief well drilling operations in the Gulf, the collection of surface oil at the spill site, or BP’s effort to install a new oil-capturing system at the well site that will be easier to break down and set up again in the event of a storm evacuation.

The current system would take five days to disconnect, while the new system, which employs a flexible hose, would take two days.

Where's the emergency storm plan?

Last week, Louisiana Gov. Bobby Jindal criticized BP for not yet finalizing its storm emergency plan.

The governor has pressed the oil company for more specifics on when they will order the evacuation of personnel and equipment in the face of a storm, and designating evacuation stationing areas.

BP did not return a call for comment, but Allen reported last week that the Coast Guard was working with BP on an evacuation plan, which would be implemented five days before the advent of gale force winds at the well site.

Meanwhile, the two month-old oil spill disaster continues to affect communities across the region.

In Plaquemines and St. Bernard parishes, Feed the Children – a relief charity that also works in Africa and Latin American – is distributing food to the families of out of work fishermen.

“We had Katrina and then Gustav and then the oil spill – and now with that another hurricane season,” said Ngoc Nguyen, a shrimper who worked out of Buras, Louisiana, before the spill. “What can you do? I just want to go shrimping again.”

IN PICTURES: The Gulf oil spill's impact on nature


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