Crist tours Pinellas beaches, hears local oil concerns

06/07/10 Kate Bradshaw
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Oil from the Deepwater Horizon disaster might not be washing up on Tampa Bay’s shores, but local leaders are saying they want to be ready if it does. Today, Governor Charlie Crist visited the Pinellas beaches and got an earful about the sweeping impacts oil would have, as well as the havoc oil fears have already wrought on the local economy.

Governor Crist’s first stop was a seafood restaurant overlooking the Intracoastal on Madeira Beach. There, he sat down with several fishermen and a Merchant Marine officer. Detailed response plan in tow, Captain Marti Heath reminded the governor that he has the authority to call the Merchant Marine to action.

We have thousands and thousands and thousands of trained merchant mariners, with perfect safety records, that we can send out here and contain this spill.

Heath said she was calling on the governor because BP’s approach to the massive cleanup has thus far been lackadaisical.

What they said to me on Friday was this: They said, “Well, we don't, you know, send people out until there's an imminent threat.” Well, I don't know what “imminent threat” means. Is that five miles? Is it thirty miles? What is that?

Crist: That means it's too close. Exactly — it's too close right now.

Right. And then, once they call the VOO program up — which is the Vessels Opportunity (Program) — then they want to spend forty hours training everybody.

Crist: Right.

Okay — that's too late.

Crist said the purpose of his visit was to figure out how best to deal with the threat of oil as well as the consequences the disaster has already had in Tampa Bay. One of these is a massive reduction in fishable waters for deep-sea fishers. Grouper fisherman Dean Pruitt owns a Madeira Beach-based fishing fleet. He showed the governor a map of the eastern Gulf. On that map was a sliver of yellow that represented the only waters currently open to his fleet. Its dimensions were 154 by 14 miles.

And that's all I've got left to work: the yellow area. Usually, I can work here, and nine months out of the year … But that's a closed area right now. None of this I can work, or none of this I can work. That's all I have left.

Pruitt said he wanted to show the governor that despite what BP says, the commercial fishing industry in Tampa Bay is hurting.

That's why I did this. I want BP to come through with the claims they owe people, and if they avoided it, they're hurting. Simple as that.

The governor’s next stop was the Tradewinds Resort on St. Pete Beach, where he heard from local political leaders as well as those in the tourism industry. Wearing a T-shirt that read “Florida Is Open for Business,” Tradewinds Vice President Keith Overton said he has already seen 50 thousand dollars in identifiable loss due to cancellations, but that’s not his biggest worry.

But frankly, what concerns us are those bookings that have not yet occurred. Cancellations are one thing, but the callers who aren't picking the phone up are a completely different thing.

Overton said the resort is down by 700 thousand dollars compared to last year. Those facing lost revenue may be able to file claims with BP. Regardless, Crist said he’s working with the attorney general to assemble a legal team to go after BP if it doesn't make good on the promises it's made nationwide in full-page newspaper ads.

BP is spending 50 million dollars on advertising to improve their image. There may not be enough money on the planet to do that. But you're right; it was announced last week that their dividend that they are giving to their shareholders is 10.5 billion dollars. With a B — billion dollars. So the last thing any of you should have to suffer from — or any of us — in Florida, or any of the affected states, is them nickel-and-diming anybody.

Tourism and fisheries are some of the oil disaster’s more glaring casualties, but officials also talked about the hazards that get less press. South Pasadena Mayor Kathleen Peters said she’s afraid of what would happen if oil drifted into the area of a desalination facility.

Since the state of Florida has more de-sal plants than any other state in the country, what have we done to prevent, and ensure, that we will have fresh water to drink? And we won't have our de-sal plants, because there's a hundred and twenty of them in the state.

State Representative Janet Long said she recently spoke with the CEO of Progress Energy, who said facilities like the Crystal River Nuclear Power Plant would also have to shut down if oil washes into the water used to cool them.

They cool all of the insides of that plant with water that they pull in from the Gulf. If we get oil up there, they'll have to shut down that power plant — which means that all of us in Tampa Bay don't have any power throughout the summer. That would not be good.

Long also asked Crist about how to hold the other corporations involved in the disaster, namely Halliburton and Transocean, accountable. He later told WMNF that those parties should also be held responsible, but he didn’t say how this should happen.

I think that, you know, any of the parties who may have a responsibility as it relates to what's happening in that beautiful Gulf of Mexico with all this oil, you know, justice only cries out for that kind of right approach to be handled, whether it's Halliburton, whether it's Transocean, whether it's BP. It really doesn't matter. You know, each of them apparently have had a hand in this thing. And as a result of that, I think that we'll continue to pursue those interests until we, and unless we are able to make the people of Florida as whole as possible, and their small businesses along with them.

Today, The Associated Press reported that a current shift may keep more oil off of the Florida Panhandle, where tar balls started washing up en masse Friday. The governor visited the Panhandle this past weekend, where he gave a press conference with singer Jimmy Buffett. Amid the gloom over the impacts of oil that hasn’t even hit Tampa Bay’s beaches, he repeated something Buffet said on Saturday.

All of us are anxious. All of us are angry. All of us are concerned. All of us are frustrated. But one thing that he said that really struck a note with me was, “Let's not have a 'sky is falling' attitude about this. Let's understand that we're Floridians. And, you know, from my pretty biased attitude, the prettiest state involved in all of this, we have to have an attitude that is that, we've gotten through hurricanes; we've gotten through tornadoes. We are a resilient bunch.

More WMNF coverage of the Deepwater Horizon oil spill:

USF, NOAA researchers confirm oil plume

Crist tours Pinellas beaches, hears local oil concerns

Florida Rep. Rick Kriseman still wants special legislative session on drilling and energy

Castor hears from environmentalists, local businesses on spill

Sink: Feds not BP should take over cleanup

NRDC spokesman talks about his Gulf trip

Deepwater Horizon: An international perspective

Greg Palast on BP (part one)

NDRC spokesman talks about his Gulf trip

Chemical oil dispersants may harm environment

Behind "Drill, Baby, Drill"

Sen. Bill Nelson visits oil spill incident command post in St Pete

Two state legislators urge special session on drilling ban

Hillsborough BOCC opposes expanded oil drilling

Castor says BP thinks oil leak could be up to 60 thousand barrels per day

Congressional committee grills rig execs

Crist meets with BP in St Pete on oil disaster

Gulf Restoration Network responds to BP oil disaster

Sink still wants answers from BP on oil disaster

The suffering begins on the Gulf Coast

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