BILOXI, Miss. - Coast residents were clearly frustrated when they left a BP oil spill forum Wednesday with unanswered questions.
Representatives of several federal and state agencies assured residents that tests show shrimp and fish are untainted, dissolved oxygen levels in the water are near normal for this time of year, air samples test normal, and the government is here until the Deepwater Horizon gusher is plugged and the environment cleaned up.
Representatives of the Environmental Protection Agency and National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration also acknowledged long-term environmental consequences are inevitable.
"I do think it's fair to say that the BP oil spill is one of the greatest environmental challenges of our time," A. Stanley Meiburg, EPA's deputy regional administrator, told 140 Coast residents who attended the forum sponsored by the Mississippi-Alabama Sea Grant Consortium at the Coast Coliseum Convention Center.
Meiburg also characterized the use of dispersants to break up the oil as a trade off and acknowledged the long-term effects on aquatic life are unknown. He said EPA is concerned about the unprecedented volumes of dispersants used - 1 million gallons so far. BP is still being allowed to use up to 15,000 gallons a day of dispersant on the ocean floor where the oil is gushing, but must now have government permission to use more dispersant on the surface, where most has been sprayed so far.
Residents were able to ask questions during breakout sessions. Barbara Medlock of Keith Huber Inc. in Gulfport wanted to know how much oil has been captured at sea and what is being done with it. She said her company, which manufactures mobile vacuum equipment used to suck up oil, has been unable to find those answers. She did not come away from the forum with any.
Her boss, Keith Huber president Suzanne Huber, said company representatives are very upset because dozens of vacuum trucks sit, unused, in a BP staging area on Canal Road. Huber believes those trucks could be put to work sucking up oil from barges at sea so that it would not reach shore.
The Deepwater Horizon response website indicates 13.8 million gallons have been sucked up so far. A disaster response spokesperson, who would identify himself only as "Will" with the Coast Guard, told the Sun Herald the oil mixed with saltwater is being stored in barges at various locations so the oil can be extracted and reused. He did not know for what.
At the forum, another woman who said she has a product that will clean up oil without harming the environment has been unable to speak with anyone who will take the information and get back to her.
Patrick Sullivan, a recreational boater who signed up and trained to help with the cleanup through Vessels of Opportunity, wonders why he has never received a call to work.
Don Abrams of Ocean Springs said he stayed up until 3 a.m. Wednesday researching the oil spill. He was concerned that a Texas laboratory with connections to BP is analyzing environmental samples. He believes the company would have a bias, but he was assured that government agencies are doing their own testing.
Abrams also has been reading up on the continuing fallout from the Exxon Valdez oil spill in 1989. He said Alaska residents who live in the area suffer from immune, respiratory and nerve problems, Abrams loves to fish and said his seafood is a staple of his family's diet.
"I'm not eating any fresh fish," he said. "I still have fish in my freezer." He is even more concerned about friends who depend directly on the water for their livelihoods.
He said, "I don't think there's any way you can fix a salt marsh contaminated with oil." Residents seemed generally frustrated with BP's response and government oversight.