GULFPORT — BP officials told South Mississippi leaders Saturday that beaches probably can't be protected from a major oil spill and will have to be cleaned after it comes ashore.
Local government leaders pressed for promises the company will pay for the cleanup.
Gulfport City Council members said they think the oil from the spill is being directed to the 26-mile stretch of manmade white sand beach on the Mississippi Coast, and at a special meeting Saturday took steps to protect the city.
"It's not so much that they're directing the entire slick to the Mississippi Gulf Coast," said Gulfport Councilman Rusty Walker. "They're taking the oil to the easiest place to clean."
Walker said while the city will work with U.S. Environmental Services, one of BP's contractors, Gulfport will hire its own environmental consultant.
"We want people who are protecting us," he said. BP officials said they aren't sure if the cleanup will take a month, a year or five years, Walker said. "It's clear they're not really sure of the scope."
BP spokesman Andrew Van Chau said the company is doing what it can. "We're just trying to collect the oil and keep it from sensitive areas. We're also trying to reduce the amount of oil that gets to the shoreline and mitigate the damage."
Workers have installed a 70-mile boom, or barrier, in the water that's designed to contain the oil, but the heavy wind and waves may make it less effective.
"There's no systematic technology that can stop oil," said George Malvaney, chief operating officer for U.S. Environmental Services, one of BP's contractors. "We're dealing with high tides and waves, and it's going to go over (the boom) and around it."
Representatives from BP and its contractors met with elected officials on Saturday and pledged that the company will pay for the cleanup and any effects from the oil.
However, the officials who filled the meeting room were adamant that they want more than a verbal agreement. Many remember well promises from FEMA that they would be paid for damage and cleanup from Hurricane Katrina, and that didn't always happen.
"The cities are not going to wait four months to be repaid," said Gulfport City Councilman R. Lee Flowers. "We are going to be very aggressive and proactive."
Experts with the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration estimate that South Mississippi could begin to see oil sheen on its shores in the next 48 hours to 72 hours. It's unknown when or if heavier oil will follow. If it does, there's no way to tell how long the oil will collect along the beaches or how long the cleanup will last.
Lisa Houghton, director of internal communications for BP, said the company is responsible for all of the cleanup.
"We will pay," she said. "We have said that from the beginning. Our CEO has said that BP, as the responsible party, will pay for it."
Walker said he'd like to see some money given to cities and counties up front so they don't have to pay for anything that might need to be done immediately.
"Our citizens are not going to let us get by with not doing anything and waiting for BP," he said. It's so much easier to turn off a response than to try to gear up to an emergency, said Walker. "We've done enough research to know it will come in so many shapes and forms."