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BP declines to attend Mississippi hearings on the Gulf oil leak

JACKSON, Miss. — Officials from BP, Halliburton and Transocean have declined to attend hearings on the Gulf of Mexico oil leak scheduled for this week by Mississippi's House of Representatives.

The lawmakers had set aside three days for the hearings, but at noon Tuesday the select committee was informed that the companies involved in the ongoing disaster that began April 20 with the explosion of Transocean's Deepwater Horizon drilling rig would not send representatives.

BP officials had answered questions at hearings the Mississippi Senate held in Biloxi last week, but House Speaker Billy McCoy, D-Rienzi, called their absence in the House this week “an insult to our citizens and the Legislature.”

“Considering the many officials BP has on standby in the Gulf Coast region, it is simply incomprehensible that the company could not send at least one to these hearings to give our citizens, lawmakers and business leaders their viewpoint on this oil spill disaster,” McCoy said. “We are not holding these hearings to conduct a witch hunt.”

McCoy received a letter from BP Tuesday in which officials declined the meeting, saying the appropriate employees were not available this week, but that the company would meet with the committee in the future, either in Jackson or in South Mississippi. The letter was signed by Margaret D. Laney, BP’s Mississippi coordinator for public and government affairs.

“We at BP take very seriously the desire of the Select Committee to gather on the circumstances on the Mississippi Coast relative to the spill,” Laney wrote. “We are committed to meeting regularly with stakeholders along the Gulf Coast and to providing briefings for government officials on a regular basis and we will continue to remain engaged in this way.”

A BP spokesperson told the Associated Press Tuesday that the appropriate company officials were headed to Washington this week for meetings there.

Though Attorney General Jim Hood and Gov. Haley Barbour gave the committee extensive updates on the spill Tuesday, there was a strong sense of frustration about the company officials’ absence. Rep. Brandon Jones, D-Pascagoula, said he was looking forward to a lively, unscripted discussion with BP.

“Every one of BP’s public pronouncements has been as produced and careful as the Tiger Woods’ apology,” Jones said. “What we want is for them to answer the hard questions and give us a sense of what is going on. By not showing up, it just leaves all that to our imagination and it breeds frustration. We’re already dealing with a very frustrating environment. We need more specifics.”

South Mississippi elected officials at the hearing expressed anger over the state’s control over $15 million in BP funds to be used to advertise coastal tourism in the wake of the spill. State Reps. Richard Bennett, R-Long Beach, and Scott DeLano, R-Biloxi, told officials that they believe coastal tourism resources are being wasted, as local tourism officials know best how to attract visitors to the area.

“That’s all (local tourism officials) do,” Bennett said. “It’s not like you are giving it to a bunch of amateurs down there.”

Officials told lawmakers that advanced hotel bookings are down 60 percent on the Coast. They also said tourists spend about $1.6 billion annually when the visit the Mississippi Gulf Coast, which is about a third of the state’s tourism industry.

Harrison County Emergency Management Director Rupert Lacy told the committee the process to get the “Unified Command” to approve local decisions is also working much too slowly.

Hood told the committee he was working to prevent the state’s claims for destruction of tidelands, marshes, revenue losses and other damages from being filed in federal court. Hood fears there would be a move to get the state’s cases settled too quickly in federal court, even though the full effects of the spill may not be seen for several years.

“If I can keep this in state court, we will get our cases settled,” Hood said. “I will fight for every dime.”

Hood said he also hopes to appoint a special expert in the next few days to monitor the claims process.

The House committee on the spill only met one day this week because of cancellations by company officials, but Rep. John Mayo, D-Clarksdale, who presided over the hearing, said the committee will continue to meet and determine whether any legislation is needed to address the spill.

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