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Gulf States Face Long Road to Environmental, Economic Recovery

June 15, 2010 at 12:00 AM EDT
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As criticism of BP and the Obama administration's handling of the Gulf spill continues, Gwen Ifill talks to two local officials about the president's visit and what it will take for the region to bounce back from the environmental and economic devastation.
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GWEN IFILL: While the president focuses on what the federal government can do in the Gulf Coast, local officials have their own views about how the disaster is being handled.

We have a pair of them from Florida and Louisiana. Grover Robinson is the chairman of Florida’s Escambia County Commission, which includes the city of Pensacola. And John Young is the council chairman for Jefferson Parish in Louisiana. His parish includes the coastline near Grand Isle and Lafitte.

Welcome to you both, gentlemen.

I want to start with you, John Young, because you for now going on eight weeks have been living the worst-case scenario. What is your assessment of it today?

JOHN YOUNG, chairman, Jefferson Parish Council: Well, Gwen, it’s been day 55 today. It’s been almost two months. The response has been unsatisfactory. There needs to be an intensification of equipment, an intensification of manpower.

In fact, the most effective results have been obtained through state and local action. We have built land bridges on Elmer’s Island with the National Guard and the help of the state government. We built a land bridge at East Grand Terre Island. And it kept the oil from going into our wetlands and estuaries.

Today, we were out there all day. And we saw thick, black crude in Bay Jimmy, in — in our marshes. And we had — a little Cajun engineering, we had actually vacuum trucks strapped on top of barges, vacuum trucks that you would see cleaning out portalets that were sucking up the oil.

We also visited a jack-up barge in Barataria Bay, had about 150, almost 200 fishermen from Lafitte who are out there battling the oil. That is the most equipment I saw actually was our own fishermen out there in their own vessels fighting this. They would normally be fishing these estuaries, shrimping, and harvesting oysters. Instead, we’re fighting oil.

The federal response has been unsatisfactory. BP has proven it’s not only not up to the task of plugging the leak; it can’t protect our coasts and shorelines. I think — and I have said this for several weeks now — the president needs to exercise executive authority, tell BP to step out of the way, impanel the best and brightest scientists and engineers, plug the hole, plug the leak, and let the federal government, with state and local assistance, protect our shores and coastlines.

We’re in a war. And, at this point in time, unfortunately, we’re losing the battle.

GWEN IFILL: Well, we want to revisit several of those suggestions and observations you just made.

But, first, I want to touch base down in Florida, where the situation is not as dire yet, Gordon — Grover Robinson, as it has been in Louisiana. Give us a sense of what it’s like there now in Pensacola Beach.

GROVER ROBINSON, chairman, Escambia County Commission: Well, again, I think we are seeing some of the same impacts. I mean, there was — there was oil slick over in Alabama. And we have been tar balls into — into — on our beaches and into our inland bays and bayous as well.

I do agree very much with what the — what the gentleman said over in Louisiana. It is local government that is bearing the brunt of this. It is local government that knows and understands better these bayous in each particular one and these beaches.

I wouldn’t — I wouldn’t know the first thing about how to do this in Louisiana, but I’m sure the gentleman there does. It’s the same way we know how to clean our beaches and we know how to deal with our inland waterways.

Just what he said, I think the local government should be more involved when this stuff comes on shore in the coordination effort. And I believe that gentleman has probably seen the same thing that we have seen, is, is you almost have to sit there helplessly, because you can’t get anybody to respond from BP or otherwise.

GWEN IFILL: Well, that’s — that’s my question for you, Grover Robinson. You have been watching this — basically this encroachment coming your direction for some weeks now. What does the local government do in a situation like that? Wait for BP to act? Wait for the federal government to act?

GROVER ROBINSON: Well, again — again, that’s been — we have implemented our own plans. We have tried to take care of it. And we have pressed every measure we could.

The challenge we have got is probably similar to him. There are limited resources that we have. BP continues to say we’re the responsible party and we will do the right thing. Well, the right thing would be for them to put up the money now, so that we can begin to implement. We have — we have already spent close to $4 million on this situation. And that’s almost a quarter of our reserves.

And we’re going into hurricane season. We need some financial backup here to know what’s going on. And I’m sure the — the gentlemen in Louisiana, it’s the same issue. He’s spending his county resources. We didn’t cause this. They didn’t cause this. Local governments didn’t cause this. This was caused by corporate negligence. And, again, it needs to be — it needs to be fixed.

The — just everything he said, the federal government needs to step and assist us in getting all the resources here possible. And we need to fight this thing.

GWEN IFILL: Let me just ask…

GROVER ROBINSON: We work well together, state, local, and federal, in hurricanes. Why can’t we do this the same way here?

GWEN IFILL: Well, let me ask you both this question. Do you have reason to believe that the federal government is not — starting with you, John Young — that the federal government is not making BP do what it needs to do, or do you feel that it’s just on its way and it’s happening too slowly?

JOHN YOUNG: I think the federal needs to tell BP in no uncertain terms what BP needs to do, not suggest, not request, but direct and order them to do it.

Look, I was out there last Friday in a boat. There was — there was boom on just — crumpled up on an island. Nobody was attending to it. There was boom that was surrounding Queen Bess Island, where the pelicans nest. And there was a big gap. Nobody was filling the gap.

There is a total disconnect. What local government in Louisiana wants to do is build sand berms. From May 11, we have suggested a plan. Every way, we have — met with hurdles that we had to jump over. We’re asking the president to cut the red tape, order the Corps of Engineers and the Coast Guard to let us put in the sand berms.

And, in Grand Isle, we have a plan to put in barges to stop the oil, so we can fight it before it gets in the wetlands and estuaries together with rock dikes. And that’s what we need.

But we’re continuing to be told that we have to jump through several hoops. And, again, it’s day 55, almost six months later, I mean, two months after the well blowout, and we are trying everything we can. We have plans. We know the inlands and the waterways better than anyone. And we just want BP to put up the money in escrow, and we will take care of it ourselves.

GWEN IFILL: Grover Robinson, you have had an opportunity to ask the president directly for that kind of help. Have you?

GROVER ROBINSON: And, again, I think what was said, we did meet. I did have the opportunity to meet with him today. And I did say that.

It does appear that, in the last probably 48 hours, we’re beginning to go see some change. And I was encouraged by some of the things that he said. But just what was said by gentleman in Louisiana, that’s exactly our same feeling.

We had from day one — I guess it was actually not day one, but about day 10, we submitted about the 1st of May a plan for dealing with our beaches. We believe we saw the things and the necessary part of the Florida economy with tourism to clean our beaches and our waterways as quickly as possible.

For the first week it came onshore here, nothing — no response was getting done. And we had submitted these — these plans for all — for nearly a month, and it took for them to get approved.

JOHN YOUNG: Absolutely.

GROVER ROBINSON: We have the same problems that the gentleman in Louisiana did.

GWEN IFILL: Do either of you — and I have to ask you both to be brief on this — do you believe that the right decisions have been made on mechanical resources, which is to say skimmers and booms, vs. chemical resources, which is dispersants?

JOHN YOUNG: No.

GWEN IFILL: Neither of you thinks so?

JOHN YOUNG: No. In fact, the dispersant is another issue, Gwen.

BP owns 20 percent of the company that produces Corexit. Corexit is banned in the United Kingdom. That solution may be worse than the problem, meaning the oil. There are organic dispersants that could be used. That dispersant is an issue, again, where the EPA should have directed BP not to use Corexit, not requested that they do.

GWEN IFILL: Let me ask Grover Robinson.

GROVER ROBINSON: I — I agree — I agree with the gentlemen there.

I think the challenge is, when you have local governments, they’re concerned — they live with those people that are in those local areas. They’re concerned about the protection and safety of their citizens. BP is much more concerned with the profits and the bottom line that comes to that company.

That’s been our challenge all along here. And we felt, just like this gentleman, that decisions were made on our citizens and our community that were based on BP’s bottom line, not what was going to be most effective in getting this up.

GWEN IFILL: OK.

GROVER ROBINSON: And I think, just now, we’re beginning to see that happen with those resources.

GWEN IFILL: We will be checking in with both of you some more.

Grover Robinson in Florida and John Young in Louisiana, thank you.

GROVER ROBINSON: Thank you very much.

JOHN YOUNG: Gwen, thank you so much. We appreciate it.