UPDATE: 442 boats OK to watch for oil off Miss. coast

GULFPORT — Gov. Haley Barbour says there are now 442 boats — up from just two — patrolling Mississippi waters so oil can hopefully be spotted and dealt with long before it approaches the barrier islands or mainland shores.

Barbour made the request for more boats watching for oil after a long “breakaway” strand landed on the beach on Petit Bois Island eight days ago, the only confirmed landing of oil, other than tar balls, on Mississippi shores since the Gulf disaster began.

“That’s one area I don’t feel like BP and the Coast Guard have been aggressive enough or fast enough,” Barbour said — one of the only times Barbour has publicly criticized the oil company or federal response.

“I have pushed for this … we need a sentinel line. Find it as far off the islands as we can, to give us more time to deal with it, skim it up, scoop it up, burn it, before it gets here.”

Barbour said 1,173 local vessels had already been signed up and their crews trained, “and BP is going to be paying them anyway,” so he pushed to have them out searching south of the islands.

“I can live with 442, if they’re deployed right,” Barbour said, during a meeting Tuesday with the editorial board at The Sun Herald.

Barbour again outlined Mississippi’s overall oil-fighting plan. It includes spotting the oil as far out as possible and trying to corral it, skim it and burn it.

The state has deployed 64 miles of booms on the islands and near the mainland around bays, marshes and estuaries.

If oil makes it in this far, he said, the hope is to “steer” it away from these sensitive areas and onto sandy beaches where it can be more easily removed.

Barbour said there have been some problems with the oil response command’s communication with local officials.

He said the federal government-BP team will be opening a command center on the Back Bay of Biloxi where local governments can station people to help the flow of information. The new center, which will be run by MEMA, is expected to open by the end of the week.

Barbour on Tuesday continued his criticism of media coverage of the Gulf oil disaster, saying it gives the perception that Mississippi shores and water are covered with oil.

“The biggest damage to Mississippi so far is not from oil, but from news media coverage,” Barbour said. He said people see images of the worst of the disaster in Louisiana, and that media reports aren’t differentiating.

“We are being tarred by that brush,” Barbour said. “Our economic problems from this right now are almost exclusively a matter of misconception.

“I’ve heard reports that this would be a threat to Europe. That’s about the same as saying I’m going to grow wings and take flight to Ship Island.”

Barbour also said, as he has numerous times, that the light sweet crude coming from the spill appears to be deteriorating very fast in the water and the material so far reaching Mississippi, Alabama and Florida is “nontoxic.”

“Of course, you don’t want to chew on a tar ball,” Barbour said.

“But all of us grew up picking them up off the beaches and throwing them toward the highway.”

Geoff Pender/The Sun Herald (MCT)