VIDEO: Sen. Bill Nelson in Fort Myers to update local on status of oil spill

RAW VIDEO: Senator Bill Nelson on the oil spill

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— The good news for local residents when it comes to the oil spill in the Gulf of Mexico is that Southwest Florida is the least threatened region in the state, Sen. Bill Nelson told a group of about 25 local leaders on Friday afternoon.

That will leave plenty of time to set up mechanisms — skimmers and booms — to protect the shore.

The bad news, with so much oil already in the water and up to 40,000 gallons more gushing out every day, there is still a chance that it will make it to Southwest Florida shores.

“The goal is to keep it offshore, off the beach and out of the estuaries,” Nelson told the group, which gathered in the old courthouse in downtown Fort Myers.

The purpose of the meeting was to update the leaders on the status of the spill, and answer their questions.

“I came away knowing that we have time to prepare should anything happen,” Bonita Springs City Councilwoman Martha Simon said. “Learn the lessons that are going on right now, and come visit our beautiful beach today.”

Nelson, a longtime opponent of expanding off-shore drilling who helped write the 2006 law that keeps drilling 125 miles from Florida’s Gulf Coast, criticized the relationship between BP officials and government regulators, calling it “cozy and incestuous.” He laid into BP, criticizing the company for a lack of transparency, saying company officials haven’t been forthcoming about the amount of oil gushing into the Gulf of Mexico.

“BP has not wanted us to know how much oil was going in,” Nelson said. “It took Sen. (Barbara) Boxer and me having to pry that video, the streaming live video out of them. And of course, what they said was originally it was 1,000 barrels, then they changed it to 5,000 barrels, then it was 12,000 barrels.

“Today they are saying it could be up to 40,000 barrels a day gushing into the Gulf. That means we’re going to have the effects for a long time.”

Friday, Nelson said he and several other senators wrote a letter to BP demanding the company establish a $20 billion trust fund, to be managed by the federal government, for the payment of claims of economic loss. He said a screening committee will have to be set up to verify claims.

Nelson and other government officials have also requested $100 million from BP for a consortium of 20 Florida universities to study the spill. BP announced a $10 million grant for the universities on Friday, Nelson said.

As he has done in the past, Nelson called for a military command structure to oversee the spill.

“Everybody says the Coast Guard is in control, but the fact is BP is in control,” Nelson said. “What you’ve got to do is have a unified command structure, like a military chain of command, with one person in charge.”

The oil spill, which is the largest offshore spill in U.S. history, stems from the April 20 explosion of BP’s Deepwater Horizon drilling rig.

No oil has reached Southwest Florida so far, but Sanibel City Councilman Jim Jennings said his community has been working with federal, state and local officials to address the oil spill if it gets close. Everyone is hoping it won’t be an issue.

“We can’t say where it’s going to go,” Jennings said. “The forces of nature are going to determine that.”

Connect with Ryan Mills at www.naplesnews.com/staff/ryan-mills/

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