WASHINGTON (CN) – Frustrated Louisiana officials told federal lawmakers Thursday that lack of leadership is hurting oil spill relief efforts in the Gulf, allowing oil to wash ashore and devastate wetlands and local economies. “I’ve spent more time fighting the officials of BP and the Coast Guard than I have fighting the oil,” said Billy Nungesser, president of Louisiana’s Plaquemines Parish. He said he has sat in meetings where BP, its contractors and the Coast Guard “sit at the table looking at each other while the oil continues to come in.”
Most requests placed through the incident command center take more than five days to get to Adm. Thad Allen, the federal director of spill response, Nungesser told the Senate Homeland Security Committee during a hearing to assess the local impact of the spill. He said it took a visit from President Obama to get a sand berm project approved.
“I still don’t know who’s in charge,” he said. “Is it BP or is it the Coast Guard?”
Mayor David Camardelle of Grand Isle, La., a barrier island 60 miles southeast of New Orleans that’s home to 1,200 residents, said, “The shrimp dock is a ghost town, the booms don’t work — we need some help.”
As out-of-work fishermen wait on checks from BP, Camardelle said he used his own credit card to buy food for their families. “I make $513 dollars a week as mayor,” he said, tearing up as Nungesser leaned over and patted him on the back. “I’ve got my own family to raise.”
“We’ve got people in charge that don’t know what they’re doing,” Nungesser said, holding up pictures of BP spill response contractors trampling pelican nesting grounds.
He called contractors’ method of wiping individual blades of grass in the wetlands “an absolute insult.”
“That doesn’t do anything,” Sen. Bill Nelson, D-Fla., agreed.
“Makes a contractor a lot of money,” Nungesser said.
Nungesser said he and his team had suggested 100 natural products for wetland application that would “energize the marsh and eat the oil,” but BP did not take any of the recommendations.
BP contractors are doing “absolutely nothing but destroying our marsh,” Nungesser said.
Louisiana officials added that contractors were “working 20 minutes and resting 10 minutes.”
“Would we do that in war?” Nungesser asked. “Because we’re at war here.”
“Apparently BP doesn’t think that oil moves at night,” Camardelle said.
Democratic Sen. Mary Landrieu of Louisiana said she agreed that the contracting process was “absolutely broken.” She said the officials and citizens in the Gulf “up to their knees in oil don’t seem to have the resources or authority to get the job done.”
Nungesser said more than 3,000 acres of his parish have been destroyed by the spill, “not 30 like the Coast Guard says.”
Mark Cooper, director of the Louisiana Office of Homeland Security and Emergency Preparedness, echoed his sentiment, saying Allen’s statement that the spill had impacted 100 lateral miles “does not reflect the depth of the intrusion into our coastal marshes.”
Nungesser called protective boom near the shoreline a “joke,” because it washes ashore with oil, and then the parishes are left to deal with oily boom without adequate resources. He added that there were 100 skimmers in a warehouse not being used.
Carmadelle compared the feeling of helplessness of watching oil flow into the marshlands unabated to “playing ping pong with five hundred balls coming at you and one paddle.”
Cooper said the problem was that the BP spill was being addressed under the Oil Pollution Act of 1990, which makes BP head of cleanup efforts and not the government, which would be the case under the Stafford Act, the law applied during the response to Hurricane Katrina.
“The overriding message has been that the federal government cannot provide assistance under OPA like the Stafford Act,” Cooper said.
The Stafford Act dictates an immediate local response that extends to a state and federal response when local resources are exhausted.
“There is no real unified command,” Cooper said. “That’s been the frustration.”
“You nailed it on the head,” Nelson said. “The problem is command and control.”
He said that at the Mobile, Ala., command center, he was told the Coast Guard was 51 percent in charge of spill response while BP was in charge of the rest, percentages that changed depending on who he asked.
“No one is in charge,” Nelson said. He proposed sending in the military. “You cannot leave BP in control of this because they’re not going to get it done.”
“We only have 45 days before a hurricane hits the Gulf of Mexico,” Camardelle said. “I just need your help. My hands are tied. I’m dealing with an oil company. We have no say.”
“Maybe when you have trouble getting something approved we should just put some BP executives in the oil until they approve it,” Sen. John Ensign, R-Nev., suggested.