Oil spill: BP reverses, admits there’s oil in local waters
By Kimberly Blair
Pensacola News Journal
Escambia County Commissioner Gene Valentino: “You can’t convince me that the dispersants addressed 175 million gallons of oil — and some scientists say double that — that was released into the environment.”
Despite persistent denials from BP last week, thousands of pounds of weathered oil is being pulled from under the surface of Pensacola Bay every day.
During more than a dozen interviews last week, BP officials and spokespeople for a number of government agencies working on the Deepwater Horizon Oil spill response denied knowledge of oil in the bay. Even as they spoke, however, Escambia County officials and local fishermen were reporting finding weathered oil, as they’ve been doing for weeks. BP’s own crews were hand-scooping it up, and a submerged-oil team from BP’s Deepwater Horizon Response Incident Command Post in Mobile was investigating.
“BP says it’s all gone, but it’s not. I’ve known it was out there for a month,” said a commercial fisherman who asked not to be identified because he is working for BP in the cleanup and feared losing his job.
“We were recovering it in a boat … scooping it up out of sand and dumping it into bags. They’re just trying to keep it quiet. Out of sight, out of mind.”
On Friday, Coast Guard Lt. Stephen West with the Incident Command Post finally confirmed an area of oil a quarter of a mile long and up to 50 to 60 feet off Barrancas Beach at Pensacola Naval Air Station.
He also confirmed that buckets of sunken oil were being pulled up in another area of Pensacola Bay, near Fort Pickens at Gulf Islands National Seashore.
On Saturday, Scott Piggott, who heads the Escambia and Santa Rosa cleanup operation for BP, said cleanup workers began noticing the submerged oil at Barrancas Beach in July.
“The last month, we’ve spent considerable effort to get people to concentrate on that,” he said. “Then we notice the same phenomenon at the Fort Pickens site, and cleanup has been going on there for two weeks.”
The statements from West and Piggott follow the federal government’s claim earlier this month that 70 percent of the oil is gone, with much of it dissolved like sugar in tea, according to one White House official said earlier this month. They also came after Escambia County supplied the News Journal with two of BP’s daily reports to the county about the cleanup.
• On Wednesday, BP reported cleaning up 3,776 pounds of weathered oil from water near NAS.
• On Thursday, it reported collecting 2,207 pounds from water near NAS.
• The reports say oil was not recovered from water near Fort Pickens on those two days, though 3,255 pounds were collected from the Fort Pickens beach on Wednesday and 2,123 pounds was collected the next day.
• Piggott said 1,000 pounds were collected from underwater one day last week near Fort Pickens.
‘We don’t want BP out’
Keith Wilkins, Escambia County’s point person on environmental issues, said last week he believes a breakdown in communications in the heavily bureaucratic BP cleanup organization led to the denials about the submerged oil. Officials from a number of government agencies rotate in and out every two weeks.
“We just don’t want them to leave any stone unturned,” Wilkins said about the submerged oil investigation. “We all need to keep our eyes open, and if oil is found, we don’t want BP to get out of here until it’s all cleaned up.”
Wilkins said the oil isn’t going to go away quickly.
“People feel like we were nearing the hump and nearing the close of this,” he said. “But we’re in the middle of this, ecologically. We’ll see the residual effects for some time.”
He’s hopeful BP, the Incident Command and every scientist involved in the oil spill response remains open-minded and not dismiss reports that oil remains in the water.
“A lot of people speak in absolutes,” he said. “I think they’re wrong. There are no absolutes here. They’re constantly being surprised by what they’re finding and they’re being surprised by what they’re not finding.”
‘Messed up for a while’
A News Journal reporter went out on a boat last week with two fishermen who didn’t want to be identified. The fishermen proved it doesn’t take long to come across oil in Pensacola Bay, Pensacola Pass or near shore in the Gulf. They pointed out a wide swath of oily sheen floating on the surface of the water in the bay near the Pensacola Pass. They also pointed out BP workers wading out in chest-deep water and hand-scooping oily matter from underneath the sand at Barrancas Beach.
Booms and oil-absorbent material also were being used to clean up orange-colored ribbons of oil — one a half-mile long — about a foot below the surface of the water near the beach.
The two fishermen easily found an abundance of large tar mats and tar balls of various sizes submerged under thin and thick layers of sand. When they randomly jumped into two to three feet of water in Pensacola Bay near Fort Pickens, Fort McRee and NAS and scooped up sand, they nearly always turned up some form of oily material. They said they’re not confident all the oil will be cleaned up.
“It’s going to be messed up around here for awhile,” one said.
Recreational fisherman Mark Fuqua, 47, of Pensacola, who has fished the waters from Destin to Pensacola most of his life, discovered just how big the mess is on the first day he struck out to drop a line in the water since the fishing ban was lifted two weeks ago. After a day of fishing in several areas of the bay on Wednesday, his boat, anchor and cast net were covered in oil.
“I’ve never seen anything like it,” he said. “I was fishing in front of Palafox Pier and pulled up my anchor, and it looked like it had black mud on it. I reached down to try to wipe it off and it was all greasy, like greasy sand.”
The anchor was dropped in 20 feet of water.
Piggott said the reports from fishermen about finding oil often are not reliable. “I’ve heard accounts of people who hold up their anchors that have this black stuff on it,” he said. “I can’t tell you how many times we’ve gotten reports from fishermen with sightings of sheen and oil. Ninety-nine percent of the time, these reports turn out to be organic material.”
Fuqua said Piggott’s statement “sounds typical.”
“BP is really counting on that out-of-sight, out-of-mind thing. It’s there and they know it,” he said. “They need to be exposed and made to do something about it.”
Wilkins said the county supplied Incident Command with a map showing at least 15 spots in the bay suspected of having submerged or sunken oil, including the Greenshores Project along Bayfront Parkway, Big Lagoon, Old River to Perdido Bay and Santa Rosa Sound up to the Bob Sikes Bridge.
“We want them to look at those locations because that’s where we saw oil during the worst impact,” he said.
Piggott said the discussion about looking at those locations was informal.
“I don’t know if we’ll ever find that map,” he said. “I have not seen it. I don’t think it’s been passed up to my boss in Mobile.
Escambia County Commissioner Gene Valentino said the map snafu is yet another example of the lack of communication among BP, the Coast Guard and county officials.
“It’s a mess. It’s a mess, I’m telling you,” he said. “I’m frustrated. My frustration is they still have not addressed the submerged oil in the ocean. You can’t convince me that the dispersants addressed 175 million gallons of oil — and some scientists say double that — that was released into the environment.”
The county also wants investigators to look for submerged oil on the second sandbar and outside the sandbar in the Gulf, where reports have said oil may have sunk into the sand.
A big concern is the three deposits of white sand off the shores of Perdido Key and Santa Rosa Island that the county uses for beach renourishment.
“We want to make sure they’re not oily so we do have a source of sand,” Wilkins said.
Those sites are expected to be investigated in a few weeks, he said.
There have been no reports of oil on the sunken aircraft carrier Oriskany, which is a popular diving attraction, or on any of the county’s other artificial reefs in the Gulf, Wilkins said.
‘I’m not going to sell anything’
Frank Patti Sr., owner of Joe Patti Seafood on Pensacola’s Main Street, said oil in the bay is hurting his business and the livelihoods of local fishermen.
“It’s a terrible situation,” he said.
He said his fishermen knew oil was out there and thought BP would eventually get it.
“They kept checkin’ on it and found out BP was not going to do anything about it,” Patti said. “They’re pulling our leg and trying to do a cover-up, and that is just not satisfactory to us.”
Patti’s family has been selling locally caught seafood to customers since 1930.
“As long as there’s oil in the water,” he said, “I’m not going to sell anything from here.”
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