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Gulf oil spill: Anger mounts on Capitol Hill [Updated]

June 10, 2010 | 11:53 am

   Grand isle

Gulf officials vented their frustration on Capitol Hill Thursday, reflecting the mounting anger of their constituents. "Please, please send us some help," Mayor David Camardelle of Louisiana’s Grand Isle said in emotional testimony before the Senate Homeland Security and Government Affairs subcommittee.

More than six weeks have passed since the April 20 blowout of the BP well 50 miles off the shore of Louisiana, and oil is expected to continue flowing until August at the earliest, when relief wells will be finished.

Late Wednesday, the Senate passed a bill lifting the $100-million cap on money available from a liability pool to cover the response to the spill. As a result, any amount can be used from the fund, which currently contains about $1.6 billion.

But the move did not placate local officials. "I still don’t know who’s in charge," Plaquemines Parish President Billy Nungesser told the Senate subcommittee. "I  have spent more time fighting the officials of BP and the Coast Guard than fighting the oil … We’ve got people in charge who don’t know what they’re doing."

Sen. Bill Nelson (D-Fla.), furious over reports of oil reaching his state, called for putting the Pentagon in charge of the response -- an idea that has baffled some observers who say the federal government has far less expertise than the industry in the mechanics of well blowouts. "The present system is not working," Nelson said. "The information is not flowing. The decisions are not timely. The resources are not produced. And as a result, you have a big mess, with no command and control."

With another delegation of senators preparing to fly to the Gulf Coast, Nungesser pleaded, "Please don't take flyovers of Plaquemines Parish.  It's an insult to the local people.  You can't see it from the air.  You've got to go down there and touch it.  You've got to pull  into that marsh and see there is absolutely no life.  Everything is dead."       

Coast Guard Adm. Thad Allen, a veteran crisis manager, is coordinating federal response. But Nungesser said that in some cases, it’s taken President Obama’s intervention to get things done.

Meanwhile, a bipartisan group of Atlantic Coast senators asked federal officials for the "statistical probabilities" of the spill hitting their coasts and recommendations on how their states should prepare for a "worst-case scenario." "If there is any real risk to these communities from a spill that right now remains thousands of miles away, we need to know as soon as possible," the senators wrote.

Camardelle, who represents a hard-hit barrier island about 60 miles southeast of New Orleans, testified: "Nobody is visiting our island except for BP’s subcontractors in hazardous material suits and the news media taking pictures of oil-soaked wildlife." 

"Every day, I have a mom that comes in front of me and asks me, 'Mr. David, how am I going to get food to my kids?'" he added. "I can tell you one thing," Camardelle told senators, "we're not going to give up."   

Nungesser told Nelson: "Please don't rely on the boom in Florida, unless they get ocean boom, which we said from Day One was the only thing that was going to keep it out.  It's a joke.  It washes up on the shore with the oil, and then we have oil in the marsh, and we have an oily boom.  So we have two problems. ‘’

Ray Dempsey, a BP vice president, told the committee that the company has paid about 19,000 claims totaling more than $53 million. More than 39,000 claims have been filed.

[Updated 12:25: Congress on Thursday sent to President Obama legislation lifting a $100-million cap on a dwindling emergency oil spill response fund. The money is expected to be repaid by BP, but lawmakers said they needed to act to prevent any delays in the response to the gulf spill. The measure won House approval Thursday after passing the Senate Wednesday night.
The bill would give federal authorities greater ability to dip into the total $1.6 billion fund that receives money from an 8-cent per barrel oil tax. Congress is considering raising the tax in the wake of the gulf spill. The action comes a week after the government sent BP a $69-million bill.
Rep. John Mica of Florida, top Republican on the House Transportation Committee, said lawmakers have been told that BP will pay its past-due account by the end of next week.  "Taxpayers can be assured that BP and other responsible parties will be billed for all spill containment and cleanup costs," House Majority Leader Steny Hoyer (D-Md.) added.]

-- Richard Simon and Margot Roosevelt

Photo: President Barack Obama walks toward a group of Grand Isle residents after holding a meeting at the Camardelle bait shop on Grand Isle. Credit: Carolyn Cole/Los Angeles Times