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Gulf Coast Officials Call for Leadership in Oil Spill Response

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Local mayors and parish leaders from parts of Louisiana devastated by the massive oil spill in the Gulf of Mexico testified before a Senate Homeland Security panel Thursday. The local leaders blasted the response by oil company BP and the federal government and called on Congress to establish clear lines of authority in dealing with the crisis.  

A Senate homeland security subcommittee held a hearing Thursday to assess the local impact of an oil spill caused by the explosion of a Deepwater Horizon oil rig in the Gulf of Mexico.

The President of Lousiana's Plaquemines Parish, Billy Nungesser, called on President Barack Obama to put someone with courage in charge of the response to the massive spill, saying someone has to be able to take action much more quickly. "I still don't know who is in charge - is it BP, is it the Coast Guard?  When I get mad enough at a meeting, the Coast Guard in our office stands up and says 'I can make that happen'."  When I throw a BP official out of my office, he comes back the next day and approves something.  I have spent more time fighting the officials of BP and the Coast Guard than fighting the oil," he said.

The parish leader called on BP and the federal government to quickly deploy more boats with vacuuming equipment to suction up oil from the fragile marshlands in his parish.   And Nungesser said it was an insult when officials simply fly over the oil-coated waters.  "You can't see it from the air.  You got to go down there and touch it.  You got to pull into that marsh and see there is absolutely no life, everything is dead.  I will make you a prediction; we will lose more coastline from this disaster in Louisiana than we lost from [Hurricanes] Katrina, Rita, Gustav and Ike combined," he said.

Another local leader, David Camardelle, the mayor of the barrier island community, Grand Isle, said people in Louisiana are better equipped to deal with the ravages of a hurricane than this massive, man-made disaster. "Anyone in Louisiana can protect anybody from hurricanes.  I told the president that, you send me anywhere in the world, you give me 10 days, I can make a difference with hurricanes.  But right now, my hands are tied.  I am dealing with an oil company; we have no say-so," he said.

Democratic Senator Bill Nelson of Florida agreed with the local leaders present at the hearing that it is not clear who is in charge of the response operation.  He said that officials in Florida were not even warned Wednesday when oil began entering Florida's waters.  Nelson called for the U.S. military to take a greater role in the response effort, saying it has the best command-and-control system in the world.  He said the way things are running now is not acceptable.

"How many more examples of this do we have to say until the command-and-control structure is changed.  You cannot leave BP in control of this, because they are not going to get it done," he said.

Coast Guard Admiral Thad Allen is leading the federal response to the spill.  He said on Thursday that he and other government officials would meet with BP to discuss damage claims problems.  Out-of-work oil rig crews, shrimpers, oystermen, seafood businesses and others affected by the spill are complaining that they are waiting to be compensated by BP for their loss of income.  At the hearing Thursday, the Vice President of Strategy for BP America, Raymond Dempsey, defended his company's response.

"Senator, I will assure you that BP is not delaying the delivery of resources to support this response.  It is important to note that in the unified command structure there is indeed a decision-making process.  As part of that unified command, we have to operate within that process, and we are supportive of providing all the resources necessary to address this spill," he said.

Dempsey said it is clear that Admiral Allen is in charge of the response efforts, and that BP has already paid some 20,000 claims and spent a total of about $1.4 billion to date on damages and the clean-up effort.  Congress is continuing to hold hearings on the oil spill, and President Obama met with leaders of both houses of Congress to discuss the disaster Thursday.

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