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‘We just hope our luck holds out’

State Port not yet affected by spill but officials are wary

Late last week, the only oil or remnants of oil from the Deepwater Horizon spill that’s been inundating the Gulf of Mexico since April 21 that officials know had reached Mississippi soil was a two-mile long strand of residue that beached on Petit Bois Island May 31.

With clean-up workers hampered by two days of thunderstorms in the area of Petit Bois, which is the eastern most of Mississippi’s Barrier Islands, the caramel-colored substance, Gov. Haley Barbour said, disappeared on its own volition, essentially evaporating.

While everyone from Barbour to the U.S. Coast Guard to officials with British Petroleum, which owns the oil well in the Gulf, is still unsure about exactly how much oil has invaded the Gulf or where it will eventually go, Mississippi has fared better than its neighboring states. Oil, tar balls and other spill-related substances have soaked Louisiana’s marshes and wetlands. Alabama and Florida beaches are dotted with clean-up crews.

Mississippi, so far, has escaped. And Barbour outlined last week a plan he’s formulated with federal officials they hope will keep it that way, with designs on sparing Mississippi bays that contain critical wildlife habitat and one of the state’s most important economic engines – the State Port of Gulfport.

The Port is about a year into a $600-million expansion paid for by money related to recovery from Hurricane Katrina. The expansion will, officials say, provide 6,500 direct jobs and inject nearly $2 billion into the Coast’s economy.

To protect all of that, Barbour said last week 1,173 private vessels that have contracted with BP are patrolling the waters south of the Barrier Islands in a containment and clean-up effort. He has also asked the Coast Guard to provide more sub-surface scanning and skimming ships to detect the presence of oil or residue earlier so it can be eliminated before it reaches the passes between the Barrier Islands and slips into the Mississippi Sound.

“What’s happened thus far (with the single strand of residue on Petit Bois) is manageable,” Barbour said. “Do we have the possibility that something really bad could happen? We sure do, but right now there is no reason to think any port’s operations are being threatened. The Coast Guard set up for us some time ago a mechanism where they can let vessels go in and out of the ports and get washed off. They have a system to clean off the hulls before they go inside the port so that they can continue to operate.”

Port executive director and CEO Don Allee appeared before a House Committee holding hearings on the spill last week. He told the Mississippi Business Journal in an interview at the Capitol that, other than the Coast Guard using the Port as a staging ground, the Port’s operations have not yet been affected.

“As far as ships being able to come in, unload, load and go out, we have had no interruptions,” Allee said. “In the event the spill appears to be affecting the inland waterway that leads to our port, there’s a decontamination site set up offshore should the hull of a ship show with anything on it, whether it’s oil, sheen, sludge, whatever it is.

“We think we’ve taken the right steps to be prepared for whatever the impact might be.

“We were also fortunate in the first few weeks, with a shortage of boom, we were able to secure 3,000 feet of boom, and we have that in place on the strategic areas of the Port that might be the first line of affect. It has been ships in, ships out. We’re watching the situation daily.”

Oil would have to slide between the passes of the Barrier Islands and inundate the Mississippi Sound and creep into the inlet that leads to the Port “before it becomes a real problem,” Allee said.

The Coast Guard requires every ship to have its hull inspected for contaminants – oil-related or otherwise – before it can enter the Port’s inlet. If a contaminant is found on the ship, BP has contracted with a vessel equipped with high-pressure hoses to clean the contaminants either with salt water or a chemical dispersant.

“That’s what we worry about — being open for international commerce,” Allee said. “It’s really a day by day situation. We’ve really dodged a lot of bullets. We just hope our luck holds out, but we are prepared. We have a strategy for what would happen if we have to close, and that would be finding another port for the vessels that could accommodate them.”

Allee said that, as of last Tuesday, no ship had been forced to have contaminants cleaned off it before it could enter the Port.

A spokesperson for one of the Port’s major carriers, Jacksonville, Fla.-based Crowley Maritime Corp., said that company had carried out its normal business with the Port with no major problems.

“Thus far, we have had no incidents where vessels have encountered the oil,” Crowley’s Jenifer Kimble said in an e-mailed statement. “We have been able to divert slightly from our normal routes in order to avoid the impacted areas.  There are wash stations set up by the Port of Gulfport for those vessels that did go through the oil but we have not yet had to use those. These diversions have had a slight impact on our schedule but have not posed any significant delays at this time. We will continue to monitor the situation and adjust as needed to continue to go around the impacted area for as long as that is possible.”

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