Steve Mullen: The oil isn't here ... yet

May 19, 2010 10:31:00 AM

Steve Mullen - smullen@cdispatch.com

 

One thing is certain: "It''s not Armageddon." 

 

The massive oil spill about 40 miles off the Louisiana coast in the Gulf of Mexico, which by energy giant BP''s own estimate has been growing by 5,000 barrels each day since April 20, still hasn''t reached Mississippi''s shores. 

 

Yet. 

 

"This isn''t Katrina. It''s not Armageddon," U.S. Rep. Gene Taylor, whose Fourth District includes the Mississippi coast, said back on May 1 in the Biloxi Sun-Herald. "A lot of people are scared and I don''t think they should be." 

 

The oil spill is "not Armageddon," Gov. Haley Barbour said in an Associated Press story, a few weeks and a few million gallons after Taylor, who also compared the spill to "chocolate milk" in the same Sun-Herald story. 

 

"Come on down here and play golf, enjoy the beach, catch a fish and pay a little sales tax while you''re here," Barbour said in the AP story last week. 

 

State leaders are making the best of a bad situation. Will the oil eventually reach our shores? If BP is unable to deal with the leak, the chances only get greater. (A tube inserted into the wellhead 5,000 feet below the surface has captured some of the leak, but not all of it, BP says.) 

 

Thankfully, wind and weather have been on our side. And the Mississippi River, with its plume of fresh water dumping into the Gulf, is helping push the oil away from our shores. Ironically enough, oil might reach the Florida Keys before Mississippi -- some surmise that the southern edge of the slick could get caught in what''s known as the Loop Current, sending oil due east to southern Florida in as little as a week. (But that oil would "become very, very dilute," a scientist told the AP.) 

 

While Barbour and others are in damage control mode to protect state tourism, the state Department of Marine Resources and Department of Environmental Quality are taking measures to protect our land, in the event the oil does show up. 

 

"The governor had a great statement on when it''s coming: ''God will decide,''" said Secretary of State Delbert Hosemann, who stopped by The Dispatch''s office Tuesday after a tour of Stark Aerospace. "And that''s where we are. If the wind blows the wrong way we could have lots of oil on our beaches. And if it doesn''t, we may have very little effect." 

 

Hosemann''s office oversees state lands -- including tidelands -- and oversees of the Department of Marine Resources and the DEQ. 

 

The state has oil booms in place to protect the state''s barrier islands, the Mississippi Sound and its bays. 

 

Tourism relies in part on the beaches, which, like the rest of Mississippi''s shores, are free of oil. But a bigger concern, Hosemann said, is the state''s marshland, the grassy areas along the coast.  

 

"Ninety percent of the seafood that''s harvested in Mississippi has some of its life cycle in the marsh," he said. 

 

In fact, 90 percent of all seafood in the entire Gulf relies on the marshes along the coast from Louisiana to Florida. 

 

"While the sand beaches would be a terrible thing, they can be rehabbed, and we can get more sand out of the oceans and put it on the beaches," Hosemann said. "We cannot replicate the marsh system, on any kind of immediate term. So our biggest concern is, the goal is going to be to protect the marsh." 

 

We''re talking about the thick, murky stuff here. Lighter oil, which resembles a thin sheen on the surface, breaks down quickly and would have less of an impact. 

 

So Hosemann''s job is to "stop the bleeding," as he put it. "Unfortunately, we''re not able to quantify the amount of oil that''s coming in to the ocean." 

 

The state, he said, is preparing for the most likely event. "And the most likely event is that these other things that are trying to stop the wells won''t be sufficient to cease (the oil leakage) completely. So that probably means, that some time, sooner or later, our Mississippi sand beaches will have some degradation with oil coming on shore." 

 

"We''re hopeful that that will not occur, that it will not come ashore," Hosemann said. "But the most likely event is that we will have some oil. The magnitude is just not known." 

 

As everyone knows, that hasn''t happened yet. But if it does, I''m comforted we have level-headed folks like Hosemann around, who understand it ain''t chocolate milk.

Steve Mullen is Managing Editor of The Dispatch.