- The Washington Times - Wednesday, May 5, 2010

NEW ORLEANS | Restaurateurs, hotel owners, fishermen and beachfront property owners watched and waited for the weather and ocean currents to choose where oil from a calamitous Gulf of Mexico spill would finally wash ashore.

The consequences of the 200,000 gallons a day of crude spewing from a blown-out underwater well on those whose livelihoods rely on the richness of the sealife in the waters was obvious. Fishing has been shut down in federal waters from the Mississippi River to the Florida Panhandle, leaving boats idle in the middle of the prime spring season. A special shrimping season closed Tuesday evening.

Inns and restaurants that count on tourists attracted to the beautiful blue-green waters and sandy white beaches already are getting calls about the spill, which has flirted with the coastlines before receding, mostly because of the weather.

“You mentally want to push it back to the west, and then you feel guilty for doing so,” said Jan Grant, manager at the St. George Inn on St. George Island, Fla., about the path the spill might take.

Engineers from BP PLC have failed to invent a solution to halt the gusher that’s been spewing into the sea since an offshore drilling platform blew up and sank last month and killed 11 workers. BP operated the rig that was owned by Transocean Ltd.

Chemical dispersants seemed to be helping to keep oil from floating to the surface, but crews haven’t been able to activate a shutout valve underwater. And it could take another week before a 98-ton concrete-and-metal box is placed over one of the leaks to capture the oil.

Worse, it could take three months to drill sideways into the well and plug it with mud and concrete to stop the worst U.S. oil spill since the tanker Exxon Valdez ran aground in Alaska, leaking nearly 11 million gallons of crude.

A total shutdown of the shipping lanes is unlikely. However, there could be long delays if cargo vessels that move millions of tons of fruit, rubber, grain, steel and other commodities in and out of the nation’s interior are forced to wait to have their oil-coated hulls power-washed to avoid contaminating the Mississippi. Some cargo ships might choose to unload somewhere else in the U.S. That could drive up costs.

“Let’s say it gets real bad. It gets blocked off, and they don’t let anything in. They lose time, and they are very concerned about that,” said river pilot Michael Lorino.

BP said that it would compensate people for “legitimate and objectively verifiable” claims from the explosion and spill, but President Obama and others pressed the company to explain exactly what that means.

Those who packed a meeting at a Pensacola Beach church wanted to know the same thing.

Betsy Robins, 58, said she’s lost three houses to hurricanes, a disaster Gulf Coasters dread but are more accustomed to facing. An oil spill that might foul her properties — that’s something she’s looking to the oil company to pay for. She wants BP to buy her parcels at pre-slick prices. “I don’t want to fight another claim,” she said. “I’ve lost three houses to hurricanes so far. And spent 11 years fighting claims.”

For the tourism industry, the spill couldn’t come at a worse time.

“It’s the beginning of the booking season, the beginning of the summer season,” said Marie Curren, sales director for Brett/Robinson, a real estate firm in Gulf Shores, Ala. “The only thing that could make it worse now is a hurricane.”

Dana Powell expects at least some lost business at the Paradise Inn in Pensacola Beach, Fla., and could see a different type of guest altogether: Instead of families boating, parasailing and fishing, workers on cleanup crews will probably be renting her rooms.

“They won’t be having as much fun,” she said, “but they might be buying more liquor at the bar, because they’ll be so depressed.”

And what will she serve in her restaurant? Hamburgers and chicken fingers instead of crab claws.

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