No oil on Mississippi shores for at least two days, maybe longer

No oil is expected to be make landfall on Mississippi shores for at least two days — possibly longer — but it’s difficult to predict the path of the amebic spill beyond 72 hours because of the uncertainty of tides and winds.

That’s the word state and local leaders were given in an hour-long briefing this morning led by Homeland Security Secretary Janet Napolitano, Department of Commerce Secretary Gary Locke and Dr. Jane Lubchenco, the administrator of NOAA, an agency that serves at the government’s primary scientific adviser.

Governor Haley Barbour told the gathering that he saw three issues in Mississippi:

1. The fear of the unknown, “that the national media, particularly television, was making it look like an atomic bomb is ready to go off out there” in the Gulf.

2. That local residents need a way to help, including the 300 to 400 licensed fishermen in Mississippi who could be used to help fight the oil spill.

3. That more people need to see the plan to fight the spill in the Gulf, on the barrier islands, in the bays and marshes and on the shoreline.

Barbour and other state and local leaders heard answers and views on each of those issues during the session, which was hosted by Keesler Air Force Base.

Regarding the fear of the unknown, Lubchenco said that the spill continues to movie northward and somewhat westward, but beyond 72 hours it’s difficult to forecast its trajectory because of variations in the speeds and directions of winds and tides.

Said Lubchenco: “We do not foresee oil onshore in Mississippi within the next couple of days.”

And, as far as the Coast Guard was concerned, the goal was to keep any sheen or oil from reaching any part of the Mississippi shoreline.

A Coast Guard representative at the briefing explained a multi-layered strategy that had a goal of keeping oil from reaching the Mississippi Sound. Offshore, the effort included using dispersants to break down the oil into a sheen, and doming the source. Near shore efforts including booming barrier islands and areas along the Mississippi, Alabama and Florida coastlines, with resources directed by the Coast Guard. Already 200,000 feet of boom had been placed, including 75,000 feet of boom Wednesday alone, the representative said.

The strategy also would include using Coast Guard helicopters and other assets to help identify near-shore points of sheen or oil, and then trap or skim that oil, using a fleet of vessels that could include privately owned craft.

“We do not want to shut down marine traffic in the Gulf,” the Coast Guard representative said. “We are sensitive to the importance of marine commerce.” The strategy will include having decontamination points located at key areas along the Gulf Coast to help clean any vessels that may have navigated oil-slick areas.

Leaders acknowledged Barbour’s suggestion of involving local residents, fishermen and boat owners in the response, but in coordinated pre-landfall roles.

Having volunteers work in any oil-drenched marshes would push oil deeper into the marsh, and dealing with oiled birds or mammals requires as much as 40 hours of training.

The best use of volunteers would be in basic training in the pre-landfall clearing of areas

Briefing news and notes

Here are other points made by federal leaders during the briefing:

— Federal waters in the Gulf of Mexico were closed primarily to ensure seafood consumers across the country that any seafood they consumed was indeed safe.

— All oil is toxic. The sheen is toxic, but not as toxic. For oysters, for instance, the sheen is not problematic, but the fumes from the sheen can cause problems for turtles and other mammals.

— Oil companies have been drilling in the Gulf of Mexico for 40 years. More than 30,000 wells have been drilled, and there has never been something like this, where a rig was lost and blowout preventers failed to function.

— This is not the Exxon Valdez spill. That spill was a finite amount of oil in a relatively small area. Cold temperatures slowed the dispersal of the oil. The shoreline was different: Responders could steam clean rocks along the shore, but here marsh lands will be more challenging to clean.

Said Barbour of the challenges: “We don’t need to be Pollyannaish about this, but it’s not Armageddon either.”