As oil spill cleanup shifts gears, gulf residents fear they'll be forgotten

As BP works to contain the environmental damage of the oil spill in the Gulf, many residents are having a tough time dealing with the emotional and psychological effects. Ministers and social workers are worried about increased stress and depression.
By Krissah Thompson and David A. Fahrenthold
Washington Post Staff Writers
Monday, August 9, 2010

BURAS, LA. -- Obama administration officials promised Sunday to remain focused on the Gulf Coast -- punishing BP for the worst oil spill in U.S. history, and cleaning up what remains of the mess.

But along that coast, such pledges have not stopped the rumors and suspicions that have multiplied as the oil's sheen has faded.

Work was drying up, people heard. Claims seemed harder to win. The massive cleanup effort, which helped replace lost livings with BP paychecks, seemed certain to be dismantled soon.

People here also fretted about losing the country's attention, long before anybody makes good on President Obama's promise "to restore the unique beauty and bounty" of the long-troubled gulf.

The new fear for many people here is that the only thing worse than the oil spill will be the end of it.

So when they encountered a federal official, their message was simple: Don't go.

"We have the suspicion that BP may want to get out of this restoration," Robert Phuong Nguyen, a fisherman and father of six, said in a community meeting held by Navy Secretary Ray Mabus in Buras. Obama has put Mabus in charge of the gulf's long-term restoration.

Through a translator, Nguyen listed a stream of worries: "The cleanup hasn't been done completely. Who will assure us that the seafood will be safe? If you really care about us, please pay attention. Because after this disaster, there will be a lot of marriage separation and suicide. If the government really cares, please look over our situation."

On NBC's "Meet the Press" on Sunday, White House climate and energy czar Carol M. Browner defended the administration's finding that three-quarters of the 4.9 million barrels (205.8 million gallons) of oil has either disappeared or is in the process of disappearing.

Asked if BP had concurred with that calculation of the total oil that escaped -- a key number, since the oil company's punishment might depend on the size of the spill -- Browner said: "I think BP has been silent. But that doesn't matter. We will hold them accountable."

Browner said she wouldn't speculate about whether the six-month moratorium on deep-water drilling might be lifted early. She also said Obama would be serving gulf seafood to guests attending his birthday party Sunday at the White House.

But a harder question is: What's next? The problem of how to wind down the massive cleanup effort -- now as much an economic lifeline as an attack on the oil -- is so sensitive that last week neither BP nor the federal government gave specifics about it.

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