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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.

Federal officials released a statement from Coast Guard Rear Adm. Paul Zukunft, the on-scene coordinator.

"Our efforts to fight the BP oil spill have not wavered," it said in part. "We will continue our strong presence across the region long after BP's damaged well is finally killed to make sure that all the oil is cleaned up and our communities are made whole."

BP spokesman Tom Mueller was not much more specific. He said that the company and the government wanted to stay ready to respond to new sightings of oil, but that in "places where oil is not present, there will be less [resources] -- and fewer over time."

It is clear, however, that the largest oil-spill response in history has begun to downsize.

There is still confusion about where much of the oil has gone. Last week, the federal government said that roughly three-quarters of the oil was accounted for. But outside scientists said that was based largely on guesswork. Wherever it is, the oil is largely gone from the surface, where the cleanup effort can reach it.

On July 15 -- the day a mechanical cap finally shut the gushing well -- 2,763 private boats had been chartered by the cleanup as "vessels of opportunity." By late last week, the number had been reduced by 45 percent, to 1,510.

For Acy Cooper, a shrimper from Venice, La., weekly checks from BP had replaced income lost when large sections of the gulf were closed. But then his 25-boat task force shrunk to 21, to 12, to nine. And he wasn't one of the nine.

Cooper says that leaves him in a hole; shrimp-trawling season won't start for one week. And even then, he worries that the remaining oil could turn up in somebody's net and ruin his business all over again.

"If we get these shrimp and they get one person sick, you know how long it will take us to come back?" Cooper said at the meeting with Mabus. To prove his point that oil was still out there, he held up a Gatorade bottle filled with oil taken from a nearby marsh. "We ain't through the cleanup. We can't go into recovery. It is not recovery. Somebody's lying."

Gulf areas see the signs

There were other letdowns elsewhere: As the cleanup effort pulled back, gulf areas were still left with some of the oil but fewer of the side benefits that came with the response. In the Cajun beach resort of Grand Isle, La., the population had ballooned to three times normal with cleanup workers. They didn't buy beach towels, but at least they rented rooms. Now their numbers had begun to deflate.

In rural Montegut, La., Precious Ridenour had been unemployed before the spill but found work picking up tar balls and directing forklifts full of cleanup equipment. Now she is unemployed again. "I keep calling them and calling them," she said of BP.

And in Orange Beach, Ala., Mayor Tony Kennon said he felt that BP had tightened its grip on reimbursements for claims of lost income. Kennon said restaurants, hotels and condominium owners had been facing additional skepticism from adjustors and getting smaller reimbursements than they needed.

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