In Gulf, good news is taken with grain of salt
Campbell Robertson NEW YORK TIMES
NEW ORLEANS—There is little celebration on the Gulf Coast.
Even with the news of the tentative plugging of BP’s well, the attention here has largely been focused elsewhere, on a week’s worth of reports, culminating in a federal study released Wednesday, that the oil in the Gulf of Mexico has been rapidly breaking down and disappearing. These reports have been met, for the most part, with skepticism if not outright distrust.
“It’s not gone,” said George Barisich of the United Commercial Fisherman’s Alliance, who has been making his money these days selling anti-BP T-shirts while also working in the Vessels of Opportunity program, a BP effort created to employ boats to help with the spill cleanup. “Mother Nature didn’t suck it up and spit it out.”
According to federal scientists, about a third of the oil was captured or mitigated by recovery efforts, a quarter naturally dissolved or evaporated and 16 per cent was dispersed into microscopic droplets. Just over a quarter remains on or below the surface or has washed ashore, and is either being collected or is degrading naturally.
But many here have grown skeptical after the false assurances following Hurricane Katrina, the early flow rate estimates from BP and federal agencies that turned out to be drastically low, and cautionary tales from Alaska about the Exxon Valdez disaster.
The skepticism has been stoked by environmental groups that came to the gulf in droves, lawyers who have been soliciting clients from billboards along roads leading south, a sensation-hungry news media and politicians who have gained broad popularity for thundering in opposition to response officials.
It has also been fed by continued discoveries of oil clumped in marshes, stratified underneath fresh sand or exposed in the surf at low tide. These sightings do not contradict the scientific reports, which acknowledge millions of litres of residual oil, but they fuel a broadly held fear: that the oil is merely hidden, liable to appear in a thick, brown ooze at any time.
Federal scientists and coastal residents agree in at least one respect: that the long-term effects of the spill are unknown, and that it is too early to make any conclusions about the true scale of the damage. That uncertainty leads to perhaps the most potent source of skepticism: a deep anxiety about the region’s economic future.
The anxiety begins in the short term. Billions of dollars have poured into the gulf during the response, supporting coastal communities that have had a dreary summer but also enriching contractors involved in the cleanup. Any news of dissipating oil hints at a looming end to that.
BP has promised full compensation, but that has not stopped officials and residents from pursuing lawsuits or seeking billions more in restoration payments.
Just as the problems were being ironed out in the Vessels of Opportunity program, which had left many hurting commercial fishermen on the outside, recoverable oil started disappearing on the surface.
Plenty are worried that there will be no revenue to take the program’s place as it wraps up.
“Even if it is true,” Barisich said of the reports of dissipating oil, “and I can go catch some shrimp right now, I can’t sell it. I don’t have a dealer or processor who can take it right now.”
Commercial fishing waters are being opened all along the coast, which can be done only with the approval of the U.S. Food and Drug Administration and after a variety of tests. Many fishermen, who early on were angered at what they saw as premature closings of water where little oil was visible, are now among the most concerned that the waters are being opened too quickly.
The perception of healthy seafood is nearly as important for the business as the reality, and reassuring consumers can be a long and tricky process.
“Alaska, it took them almost five years to overcome their perception challenges,” said Ewell Smith, the executive director of the Louisiana Seafood Promotion and Marketing Board.
And while BP has recently highlighted its efforts to speed up the claims process, more than two-thirds of claims have not been paid, mostly because adjusters are waiting on documentation that may be hard to come by for many in the largely cash-driven fishing business.
The economic worries still come back to a fundamental disagreement: Many residents simply do not believe that the oil is going away any time soon, whatever scientists are saying.
Fishermen are also keenly concerned about shrimp, crab and finfish larvae. If the larvae are in jeopardy, it may not be known until future fishing seasons, even after the cleanup ends.
Scientists have found hydrocarbons and possibly dispersant in samples of crab and fish larvae, but say that it is premature to draw any conclusions about the long-term effects.
Oil spill by the numbers
On June 2, the area closed to commercial and recreational fishing was at its largest measuring 230,000 square kilometres, which is approximately 37 per cent of Gulf of Mexico federal waters.
Approximately 31,400 people are involved in the cleanup.
More than 5,050 vessels have been chartered.
Almost a million metres of containment boom and 2.5 million metres of sorbent boom have been deployed to contain the spill.
More than 131 million litres of an oil-water mix have been recovered.
Approximately 6.9 million litres of total dispersant have been applied.
411 controlled burns have been conducted, efficiently removing a total of more than 42 million litres of oil from the open water in an effort to protect shoreline and wildlife.
More than 1,000 kilometres of Gulf Coast shoreline is currently oiled — mainly in Louisiana, but with serious impacts in Mississippi, Alabama, Florida.
Total oil spilled: 780 million litres.
BP has spent $3.12 billion US cleaning up the oil spill.