Oil slaps Alabama coast; boat traffic shut down

Saturday, June 12, 2010
By Paul Martin

George Altman, Press-Register
AL.com
Saturday, June 12, 2010

As unprecedented amounts of oil slathered Alabama’s coastline Friday, officials closed stretches of water in Alabama, Mississippi and Florida to most boat traffic to aid containment efforts.

The closure of Alabama waters inside Perdido Pass to all recreational boating traffic, requested by Orange Beach Mayor Tony Kennon, effectively shut down fishing from the self-titled “Red Snapper Capital of the World.”

Only vessels working with BP will be allowed to use the pass until further notice.

The main body of the Gulf oil slick will hover just miles south of coasts on both sides of the Florida-Alabama line by Sunday, the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration projected.

Recreational boats were obstructing efforts to protect marshes near the pass, and boaters failed to obey no-wake zones, with some personal watercraft riders actually jumping protective boom, according to Orange Beach Coastal Resources Manager Phillip West. As a result, waves flowed over some boom, and the floating barriers outside of the Pass were severely damaged.

“It’s a shame that a few ruined it for others, but basically, there didn’t seem to be a more workable plan to allow limited recreational access. So the simplest and most enforceable thing to do was to ask that those waters be closed,” West said.

The Orange Beach order closed all waters south of a line running from the southernmost tip of Bear Point to Ono Harbor on Ono Island. Closed areas include Bayou St. John, Terry Cove, Terry Cove Harbor, Cotton Bayou, Perdido Pass and all canals entering these waters.

Oil has spewed into the Gulf of Mexico – at an estimated rate of 840,000 to 1.68 million gallons per day – since the Deepwater Horizon rig exploded April 20. The well’s owner, BP PLC, has begun siphoning some of the leaking oil, and the company says it is now capturing 630,000 gallons a day.

As state and local officials restricted sections of water, Gov. Bob Riley emphasized that the beaches were open for business.

“Rent a condo, stay in a hotel, go to a seafood restaurant. Just come down here and enjoy Alabama’s coast,” Riley said in a written statement Friday. “There are precautionary swimming advisories, but Alabama’s beaches are open right now, and that’s a message we’re working to get out.”

Also on Friday, BP, which is paying for cleanup costs, agreed to stop using boats registered to out-of-state owners for protection efforts in the waters surrounding Bayou La Batre. BP also promised to give preference to commercial fishing and charter vessels, said state Rep. Spencer Collier.

For weeks, some commercial fishermen have said that BP hired too many out-of-state and recreational boat owners to help contain the spill, instead of giving work to Alabamians who make their living by fishing local waters.

Collier, R-Irvington, said the agreement came after extensive conversations with the company and the Alabama Department of Environmental Management. Officials with BP confirmed the agreement.

“Our intent and focus has always been to fill our operational requests” with Alabama boats, said Jeff Johnson, branch director of logistics for BP’s Vessels of Opportunity program.

As of Thursday night, 807 Alabama boats were in use in the program, Johnson said.

Riley, U.S. Sen. Jeff Sessions, R-Mobile, U.S. Rep. Jo Bonner, R-Mobile, and several members of the Alabama Army National guard went to Lulu’s restaurant in Gulf Shores on Friday morning to give its employees information on filing claims with BP for income lost because of the spill.

Riley urged people to file claims, noting that only about 10,000 Alabama residents had done so thus far.

“If you’ve filed a claim, we will do everything we can to make sure you get paid in an expedient fashion,” he said. “But if you don’t file, there’s nothing we can be advocates for.”

Riley told members of the Press-Register’s editorial board on Friday that he was dissatisfied with delays in processing claims related to the spill, and would send National Guard troops and staff from the Alabama Emergency Management Agency to help speed the process.

“These are small businesses and family businesses that don’t have a lot to fall back on,” Riley said. “They’re losing business, and if they don’t get help, they’re gone.”

But Orange Beach’s Kennon issued a warning to anyone who might be thinking of filing a fraudulent claim.

“If we spot someone trying to get something for nothing, I promise you we’re going to turn it over to the district attorney,” Kennon said at a midday forum Friday. “I do not want to be embarrassed, and we will find you out.”

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