Legislative panel to look into oil leak

JACKSON – Separate state House and Senate committees have been formed to look at how the massive Gulf of Mexico oil leak is affecting Mississippi.
Both Lt. Gov. Phil Byrant, who presides over the Senate, and House Speaker Billy McCoy have formed select committees.
“We want the people of the Coast and the state to know that the House of Representatives will support the recovery effort that will follow this disaster,” said McCoy, D-Rienzi. “Our committee’s work will not be a witch hunt … Its job will be getting real answers to the real problems we face.”
The committee formed by Bryant will be chaired by Senate President Pro Tem Billy Hewes, R-Gulfport. Made up of Gulf Coast senators, it will meet this afternoon at the state Department of Marine Resources Headquarters in Biloxi after a flyover of the affected areas in the Gulf of Mexico.
“This committee will review the efforts currently going on and how Mississippi has responded,” said Bryant, a Republican. He said the panel “will advise the Senate as to any needed course of action. … I believe the state has thus far responded in an admirable and prudent manner.”
Hewes said the committee will look at a host of issues, such as whether legislation is needed to deal with the state’s response to what has been described as the nation’s worst environmental disaster.
It also could look at whether the Legislature needs to review state laws regulating drilling in Mississippi waters.
The current leak, caused by the the explosion of the Deepwater Horizon in April, was not in state waters and was in an area of the Gulf much deeper than the waters where Mississippi has jurisdiction.
Still, “if these are operating in a marine environment, we need to take as many precautions as we can,” Hewes said. House Gaming Chair Bobby Moak, D-Bogue Chitto, said the Legislature last dealt with drilling in a substantial manner in 2005, putting in place regulations for drilling in Mississippi waters.
Hewes said he is not sure how many meetings the Senate committee will have.
The House committee, chaired by Speaker Pro Tem J.P. Compretta, D-Bay St. Louis, will have three days of meetings next week at the state Capitol.
The meetings will involve state officials responding to the disaster, local governmental officials from the Gulf Coast and representatives of the private companies involved with the Deepwater Horizon.
“We realize that we have no jurisdiction in international waters, but this tragedy has affected the whole state and the Mississippi Coast region in particular in terms of jobs and tourism opportunities,” McCoy said. “We do not want to raise any fears as we look into the disaster, but the people of Mississippi deserve to know how this happened and what the future may hold for this most valuable part of our state.”
Indeed, Gov. Haley Barbour said, “When the Coast is hurt … that is a statewide economic problem.”
The Coast tourism industry has a major impact on the state economy, Barbour said. While some residue from the oil leak has reached a Mississippi barrier island, thus far it has been kept away from the Mississippi mainland beaches populated by hotels, motels, restaurants and casinos.
Still, Barbour said there has been a record number of cancellations on the Gulf Coast that have been blamed on the oil leak. The governor said the goal is to prevent the oil from getting past the barrier islands into the Mississippi Sound where, many fear, it would slush back and forth and not easily flush out.
Moak, a member of the speaker’s select committee, said another duty for the committee is to look at the impact of what is being done by all responders – private, federal and state – on Mississippi.
For instance, the barrier islands Louisiana is asking the federal government to build could protect that state while sending the oil toward Mississippi.
While Moak said all the states affected by the oil leak should work together and he does not want to see any area harmed, “We want to do what we can to protect Mississippi.”

Bobby Harrison/NEMS Daily Journal

Click video to hear audio