U.S. Sen. George LeMieux criticized President Barack Obama’s handling of the Gulf oil spill Saturday, saying he hasn’t done enough to help Florida and the other affected states or their residents.
Obama visited Louisiana’s Gulf Coast on Friday, hours after the first tar balls began coming ashore in the Florida Panhandle. It was the president’s third trip to the Gulf since the crisis began almost seven weeks ago when a drilling rig operated by BP PLC exploded off the Louisiana coast. Eleven workers died and a gusher of oil began spewing into the Gulf.
“I don’t want to just see my president come down here and be here for a couple hours and then go back off to Chicago or go back off to Washington, D.C.,” the Florida Republican said while visiting Pensacola Beach. “I want him on the ground helping us work on the ground, managing through solutions, pushing people for answers.”
Tar balls continued to come ashore on Pensacola Beach and along the western Panhandle on Saturday and the sea foam was tinged a rusty orange, staining driftwood, seashells and skin. Tar mats and oil sheen were reported within a mile of the coast. But the beaches remained open and visitors crowded the sands and frolicked in the water.
The pollution brought LeMieux, Gov. Charlie Crist, state environmental protection secretary Michael Sole and Maj. Gen. Douglas Burnett, the head of the Florida National Guard, to Pensacola Beach. There are fears that winds and currents will spread the spill along Florida’s Gulf Coast, down through the Keys and eventually up parts of the Atlantic Coast. Between 23 million and 46 million gallons of oil have spewed into the Gulf and BP’s efforts to cap the well haven’t been successful.
LeMieux, who visited separately from the others but shared a handshake with Crist and the rest of the group at the beach, was the most critical of Obama. He said his periodic visits to other Gulf states aren’t enough.
“I want to see him right here in Escambia County,” he said.
LeMieux, who was appointed to the Senate by Crist last year after Mel Martinez resigned, compared Obama’s handling of the oil spill to former Gov. Jeb Bush’s work after Florida was struck by repeated hurricanes in 2004 and 2005, saying Bush spent 14 or 15 hours a day overseeing the state’s response.
“That’s what leaders do. They manage through crises,” LeMieux said.
The senator called on BP to put $1 billion into a fund that state and local governments in Florida, Louisiana, Mississippi, Alabama and Texas could use to pay for cleanup efforts and other costs.
“British Petroleum doesn’t need to be running that effort. Folks here who are on the ground, used to dealing with disasters can run that effort. Obviously, BP has to pay the bill,” LeMieux said. BP has promised to repay the states and businesses for costs and lost revenue.
Some Democrats pointed out that LeMieux, before he became a senator, did legal work for a group that lobbied Florida legislators to open state waters to offshore drilling.
But a spokesman for Florida Democratic Sen. Bill Nelson would only call LeMieux’s criticism of Obama “overly harsh” and added that Nelson isn’t satisfied with BP’s or the government’s response to the disaster, either.
“Nobody can be,” Dan McLaughlin said.
Crist, meanwhile, toured the Pensacola Beach with singer Jimmy Buffett and spoke to visitors, who were worried about what’s going to happen next.
It would have looked like a typical June day _ people swam in the water and tossed footballs _ if not for the workers in white decontamination suits walking among the crowd picking up tar balls.
Longtime friends Rancho Moore, of Warner Robins, Ga., and Kirk Darby of Navarre, Fla., drank beer from plastic cups at picnic table on the Pensacola Beach fishing pier as they watched Crist and Buffett. They thought Crist’s frequent visits to the coast stand in positive contrast to Obama.
“Just being here, it presents leadership and that’s important right now. He’s standing up and taking control, and in my opinion, we haven’t seen that from Washington,” Darby said.
In Destin, about 45 miles east of Pensacola, the beaches remained pollution-free Saturday but tourists and locals alike know it is inevitable that tar balls and oil will soon arrive.
The only warning at Howard Beach State Park was a red flag for rough surf. And the waves made it that much more fun for Hall Sebren, 36, and his 8-year-old son Alexander as the rode toward shore on boogie boards. Sebren, an Air Force major who lives near Colorado Springs, said he wasn’t worried about the water.
“I know all the oil’s down in Pensacola. It hasn’t come down here. If the wind keeps blowing like this, it will be down here soon,” said Sebren, who was visiting family before being deployed to Iraq. “We’re going to come to the beach regardless. We probably won’t swim if there’s oil.”
His 64-year-old father, George Sebren of Niceville, plans to do lots of fishing while he can.
“It’s coming. I’m very sad. Obviously these are world famous beaches _ the Emerald Coast. I’m sad they’re going to be spoiled for a while,” he said.
Amanda Cornette, 26, of Greenville, Ky., was visiting the beach with her husband, Joey. Four-months pregnant, she refused to get in the water.
“If there were any chemicals in the water, I did not want any harm,” she said.
Associated Press writer Brendan Farrington in Destin contributed to this report.
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