Well plugging efforts bring relief, fears

Published 11:39 pm Saturday, August 7, 2010

The gusher has finally been beaten back, and from 400 miles up government satellites assure that the oil in the Gulf of Mexico is disappearing. But Dave Marino only wishes he could put that kind of distance between himself and the Deepwater Horizon spill.

As northern breezes drove tides lower in the last few days, temperatures well into the 90s seemed to reliquify the sludge lodged in marshes near Marino’s home of Myrtle Grove, La., releasing a steady, black drip from the high grasses. Walking on the beach at Isle Grand Terre, Marino looked back to see oil oozing from his footprints in the sand.

‘‘There’s still oil out here,’’ says Marino, a firefighter who runs a charter fishing boat on the side. ‘‘It’s all over the place. Not much has changed.’’

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But with BP cautiously declaring its ‘‘static kill’’ a success in plugging the once-runaway well, and the Obama administration’s claims that crews and nature had taken care of all but a quarter of the estimated 207 million gallons of crude that have poured from the blowout, Marino and others can already feel the nation’s gaze turning away.

President Obama and BP have pledged to stay the course until all the oil is cleaned up, all ‘‘legitimate claims’’ are paid and those hurt are made whole.

Still, as Gulf Coast residents pause to think about what they’ve been through and try to look forward, they can’t help but glance over their shoulders.

After Hurricane Katrina in 2005, the country’s attention was focused on the region like a laser beam. For the first time in decades, it seemed that the rest of America finally understood that the slow death of the nation’s largest network of coastal wetlands was a threat to them and therefore, something they should care about.

But the zeal for restoration ran headlong into the great recession. And people’s attention and efforts turned elsewhere.

‘‘We all said that that was a game-changer — that things were going to be done differently,’’ says Casey DeMoss Roberts, assistant director of water resources for the Gulf Restoration Network, an environmental advocacy group. ‘‘All the disparate interests were going to get together, work together and come up with a single plan.’’

And as the death tolls mounted in Iraq and Afghanistan, banks collapsed and the auto industry teetered on the brink of disaster, people’s attention and efforts turned elsewhere, she says.

‘‘And THEN we have the BP disaster,’’ says Roberts. ‘‘And again people are saying, ‘OK. Now THIS is the game-changer. We’re going to get it right with the coast this time.’’’

And yet doubts and uncertainties are everywhere.

So much has happened since April 20, when 11 men died in the explosion that sank the Deepwater Horizon 50 miles offshore. All along the coast, residents still reeling from closed fisheries, empty restaurant seats and vacant hotel rooms wonder what, if anything, we’ve learned from it all. And they worry — that the nation will forget them, that the depths of the Gulf may hide far greater damage than BP admits, that a region long admired for its resilience may this time have been pushed beyond repair.

‘‘Katrina wiped out half the parish I grew up in,’’ says Kerry St. Pe’, director of the Barataria-Terrebone National Estuary Program, whose family has lived along south Louisiana’s bayous since 1760. ‘‘You can’t keep hammering the way people make their livings and how people live and still maintain this culture because people will eventually just give up.’’

Besides those directly harmed, the nation and world got swept up in the spill crisis.

Americans acquired a whole new lexicon — ‘‘top hats’’ and ‘‘top kills,’’ ‘‘containment domes’’ and ‘‘junk shots’’ — as they watched on fuzzy screens while an ever-growing school of remote-controlled submarines attempted to staunch the well, and came to the realization that the oil industry was not prepared to deal with a blowout a mile beneath the sea. ‘‘It’s like if NASA had pushed the technology envelope as far as they could to get into space, and then didn’t do any kind of funding or study on how to get back,’’ says Roberts.

BP CEO Tony Hayward, who couldn’t seem to keep his foot out of his mouth, lost his job. The federal Minerals Management Service, the dubious watchdog agency that was supposed to be making sure BP and its contractors acted responsibly, was replaced by the ponderously named Bureau of Ocean Energy Management, Regulation and Enforcement.

Congressional hearings brought calls for action. A federal moratorium on deepwater drilling was imposed, challenged, blocked by the courts, then reimposed. Governors of states injured by the spill — Louisiana’s Bobby Jindal chief among them — found themselves in the odd position of defending the offending industry.

John Hofmeister, former president of Shell Oil Co. who now leads a group called Citizens for Responsible Energy, admits that the industry was caught flat-footed. When the oil was spreading across the Gulf and washing up in marshlands, ‘‘that’s where the oil spill response really needs to be at its peak, and we failed. We didn’t have the capacity. That’s a lesson learned, and the industry has responded.’’

Four companies — Exxon Mobil Corp., Royal Dutch Shell Plc, Chevron Corp. and ConocoPhilips — have pledged $1 billion to research and develop a response to future deep-water oil spills in the Gulf.

No amount of Dawn dish soap can wash away the images of pelicans and other Gulf creatures, oil-drenched and dying. Yet, the clearing waters and relatively low numbers of blackened carcasses seem to bolster the industry’s contention that the environment is far more resilient than many others first thought.

BP’s Hayward was much maligned when he asserted at one point that ‘‘the environmental impact of this disaster is likely to be very, very modest.’’

But this week, even White House spokesman Robert Gibbs could tell reporters: ‘‘I think it is fairly safe to say that because of the environmental effects of Mother Nature, the warm waters of the Gulf and the federal response, that many of the doomsday scenarios that were talked about and repeated a lot have not and will not come to fruition because of that.’’

Fears that the oil would enter the Gulf’s ‘‘loop current’’ and follow it up the Atlantic coast did not become reality. Nonetheless, the spill’s psychic taint spread far and wide. As one example, it reached North Carolina, where a political ad by a conservation group portrayed an oil-covered U.S. Sen. Richard Burr being pulled from the water and scrubbed by volunteers in yellow hazardous-waste suits. ‘‘Until he supports clean energy climate legislation,’’ an announcer says, ‘‘I don’t think we can save him.’’

Many have called the spill ‘‘Obama’s Katrina,’’ and it is unclear what impact the disaster will have on his prospects for a second term. Pundits debate what will happen to oil-industry reform efforts if the spill contributes to a change of guard on Capitol Hill and in the White House.

For those who live day to day, season to season, along the Gulf Coast, though, thoughts are not about an election cycle down the road but on the precariousness of livelihoods and a way of life down here.

‘‘We’re scared,’’ fisherman Joey Yerkes, 43, said at a meeting Tuesday night in Destin, Fla., with Vessels of Opportunity participants, a BP program that pays boat operators knocked out of work by the spill to assist with response activities.

Yerkes laughed when government and BP representatives at the gathering suggested oil from the Deepwater Horizon well was leaving just a ‘‘minimal impact’’ on the Gulf waters and Panhandle beaches and bays. He and the other 100 or so fishermen and charter boat captains continue to find oil and tar balls in areas that have been declared clear. They know scientists have warned that clouds of oil, chemical dispersants and dissolved natural gas are hovering beneath the water’s surface, threatening a second wave of destruction.

‘‘The end to the leak is good news, but the damage has been done,’’ Yerkes says. ‘‘I believe they’ve destroyed our fish stocks, they’ve destroyed my living and I’m not sure the water is safe to be in.’’

And there’s another worry that you hear often throughout the region: Will we be forgotten now that the oil’s no longer spewing?

‘‘We’re happy that it’s capped. We’re excited to be part of the cleanup efforts to get our lives back to normal. Those are the things we do know,’’ says Kevin Buckle, a 47-year-old Gulf Coast native who works in sales and marketing at Ship Island Excursions in Gulfport, Miss.

‘‘What we don’t know is how long oil on the bottom of the Gulf will be washing up and what the long term effects of the dispersant will be… The other thing we don’t know is what BP is going to do…’’

People are just uneasy having to rely on the perpetrator to ‘‘make this right.’’

‘‘I’m dependent on them doing the right thing,’’ says Baytowne Watersports owner Barry Denman, who says rentals of jet skis, pontoons and other craft at his Destin, Fla., business are way down and still dropping. ‘‘They can just be like the IRS and ask for more and more documents and wear you down. I’m trying to do everything they ask for, but nowhere in my mind is that going to be enough.’’

Folks don’t want BP to go — and yet they are totally fed up with the spill, the cleanup, the disruption of everything familiar. In ways the axed BP CEO failed to articulate, they want their lives back.

‘‘I had a run-in with one of the Coast Guard. He said this is my water out here. I said, no, you’re wrong. This is my water. You’re just a visitor… We’ve been here all our lives,’’ says Wayne Eldridge, whose construction company in Bayou La Batre, Ala., has been working on oil spill response.

‘‘You got guys in hazmat suits walking down the beach. It’s not … fun having your wife and daughter lying out in bikinis. It just doesn’t go together, you know?’’ says Alabama real estate agent and developer Howard Yeager.

Although he has a hard time trusting anyone linked to the spill, he is counting on the government to make the rig’s owners and operators fulfill their promises of restoring the Gulf. ‘‘I don’t see BP packing up and leaving. I don’t think they could do that without the government seizing assets and trying to pay bills for them, taking drastic action,’’ Yeager says.

Mary Scarcliff’s thinking kind of goes the other way. The owner of Lighthouse Bakery at Dauphin Island, Ala., who has a BP contract to feed National Guard members working on the coast, trusts BP to do the right thing since the company already is making claims payments. But she is worried about the federal government and general public forgetting what happened once news coverage of the spill decreases.

‘‘If you’re not living with it you forget. To the north of us, once the media takes it out of people’s faces, they tend to forget,’’ she said. In fact, attention to the spill story on the evening newcasts of ABC, CBS and NBC dropped after the oil stopped spewing — from a combined 83 minutes for the week ending July 16 to just 49 minutes two weeks later. Even so, ‘‘the cameras aren’t going away from this disaster,’’ anchor Brian Williams says in one of the promos NBC ‘‘Nightly News’’ has run pledging not to forget the people of the Gulf coast.

One of those with a pending claim is Randy ‘‘T-Ran’’ Borne. This was going to be the year he finally got out from under.

At 30, the Golden Meadow, La., man had overcome a drug habit, gotten custody of his three daughters and begun building his life. What started as a 4-by-8-foot plywood shed in his yard had grown into a retail business with a walk-in cooler from which Borne sold the shrimp, crabs and minnows he caught on his 3,900-acre bayou lease and Catfish Lake behind it.

‘‘I made my name last year, and BP came in and took it from me this year,’’ the tattooed Borne says in a heavy Cajun accent. ‘‘People knew I sold the best; they knew what they’d get here. Now they don’t stop, or if they do they say they’re scared there is oil in the crabs.’’

Borne had dreams of making $100,000 this year. Now, he’s waiting on a BP claim and wondering if it will be enough.

‘‘If they give me a good chunk of money, I’ve got to take it,’’ he says. ‘‘But what if that oil that’s sunk down in the Gulf keeps killing things? What happens if there’s no shrimp next year. Where’s BP then?’’

When the White House oil spill commission solicited public comment, Lafayette, La., crawfisherman and Cajun musician Drew Landry decided to put his in verse. His song ‘‘The BP Blues’’ captures how it feels to be dependent on an industry that threatens to kill the very culture it supports:

‘‘Kickin mud up off a crawfish hole

‘‘Barefooted with a fishin’ pole

‘‘Goin’ back into the oil fields

‘‘That’s the only way to pay our bills.’’

Landry plans to donate half the proceeds of his recording to organizations working to restore the Gulf. He’d like to see locals with cameras and monitoring equipment out there checking on things, because he just doesn’t trust the government or BP.

‘‘This is just going to be something everybody forgets about. But I’m telling you. People down here ain’t gonna let them forget about it. And they’re not going to let them just walk on this. It’s not going to happen.’’


AP Writers Jennifer N. Kay in Destin, Fla.; Holbrook Mohr in Jackson, Miss.; Mary Foster in Golden Meadow, La.; Jay Reeves in Dauphin Island, Ala., and TV writer David Bauder in New York contributed to this report.