The Times-Picayune (Louisiana): Calling Gulf of Mexico oil spill 'America's problem,' federal officials say disaster response is largest in nation's history

As oil from the gushing Gulf of Mexico well continued washing onto Louisiana's shores Monday, federal officials addressed growing fears of an economic and environmental catastrophe, saying they have mobilized the largest disaster response in the nation's history and "will keep our boot on (BP's) neck until the job gets done.''

Also, four U.S. senators from other states took a helicopter tour of Louisiana's 70 miles of oil-marred coastline and pledged their support, calling the spill "America's problem."

Interior Secretary Ken Salazar said that while BP is responsible for stopping the leak and cleaning up the oil, the federal government is overseeing the oil giant's every move and prodding it to act when necessary.

"We are not standing on the sidelines letting BP do whatever it wants to do," Salazar said, addressing growing criticism over the federal government's oversight and BP's performance. "We will keep our boot on their neck until the job gets done."

Homeland Security Secretary Janet Napolitano said the 20,000 workers and 1,000 vessels dealing with the leak represent the biggest disaster response in the country's history.

"The leak is still ongoing, it's still not solved. But there are things happening and some forward motion," she said, referring to BP's plans to attempt a "top kill" this week to block oil spewing from the well 50 miles off the Louisiana coast.

"We hope it works, but we don't want to hope unrealistically," she said. "In the meantime, all efforts to contain the oil will continue unabated."

The two Obama Administration Cabinet members spoke at a news conference in Galliano after touring the spill zone with Gov. Bobby Jindal and six senators, including both Louisiana senators.

The four out-of-state senators said they will support Louisiana's long-term recovery efforts.

"This is America's problem. It's not just Louisiana's problem," said Sen. Jeff Bingaman, D-N.M., who is chairman of the Senate Energy Committee.

Sen. Lisa Murkowski, R-Alaska, said seeing the oil-stained shores brought back painful memories of the 1989 Exxon Valdez spill in her state.

"Unfortunately, it's like deja vu all over again," she said. "It's a devastation that lives with you forever."

Although Murkowski blocked efforts in the Senate to raise the oil spill liability cap from $75 million to $10 billion, she said she will work to ensure BP promptly pays damage claims, avoiding the decade-plus delays in compensating those harmed by the Exxon Valdez spill.

"I want you to know that we're committed to working with you so that the mistakes made in Alaska are not repeated in the Gulf of Mexico," Murkowski said.

Also participating in Monday's spill tour were Sens. Dick Durbin, D-Ill., and Sheldon Whitehouse, D-R.I.

Sen. Mary Landrieu, D-La., said that despite some early glitches in processing damage claims, those whose livelihoods have been hurt by the spill will be fully compensated.

"If you made $50,000 last year and can't work this year because of the oil, BP will write you a check for $50,000," Landrieu said. "We're still working out the details, but those bills will be paid."

Jindal reiterated his call for the Army Corps of Engineers to approve a $350 million plan to use dredged sand to rebuild the state's barrier islands as a natural shield against the advancing oil.

"I'd much rather fight the oil out on the barrier islands than in our wetlands," Jindal said.

Sen. David Vitter, R-La., said that by not swiftly approving the dredging plan, President Barack Obama was breaking his pledge to "act in a timely manner and do whatever it takes" to protect Louisiana and the Gulf coast.

Napolitano said the corps is giving the proposal an "expedited review."

"They are also looking at alternatives that might be as effective or more effective," said Napolitano, who did not elaborate.

In one area of agreement, Napolitano granted the state's request to place more high-ranking Coast Guard officials in the field to eliminate delays of up to 48 hours in approving responses to the shifting spill.

Coast Guard Commandant Adm. Thad Allen, the national incident commander, touched on that during a White House news conference later Monday.

"We're going to take a look at those teams that are being deployed and make sure that, no matter where they're at, the direction there, there's somebody in a blue suit providing supervision or coordination related to that,'' he said. "And I offered and have deployed an officer to Gov. Jindal's staff to be that personal liaison between him, me, Secretary Napolitano, or anybody else . . .''

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Source: By Paul Rioux. Originally published May 24, 2010