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

By Krissah Thompson and David A. Fahrenthold
Washington Post Staff Writers
Monday, August 9, 2010; A01

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.

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.

"BP said they were going to make us whole," Kennon said. "Now they're finding ways to narrow down more and more who's getting paid."

He said he's offered $500 out of his own pocket to people in town who think that BP has settled their claim in full. In 14 meetings, "nobody has taken me up on that."

A BP spokesman said there was no attempt to become stingier. He said Orange Beach's county had received more reimbursements than any other along the Gulf Coast, but BP has reduced payments to people who have not yet submitted proper documentation.

Retired Coast Guard Adm. Thad Allen, who has led the administration's response to the spill, gave BP a mixed review for its handling of the accident and its aftermath. While giving the company "fairly good marks" for employing the technology that has capped and controlled the well in recent days, Allen suggested Sunday that BP had fallen short in dealing with people affected by the spill.

"It's something [for which] they don't naturally have a capacity or a competency in their company," Allen said, "and it's been very, very hard for them to understand. And that's the lens by which the American people view them, and that's the area where they need to improve the most."

Problems go beyond oil

For other people around the gulf -- for whom the spill's impact is not measured in paychecks -- the real worry is the loss of leverage.

For a moment, it seemed like the spill might actually focus attention on the country's "Third Coast" and create enough national guilt to kick-start efforts to fix the gulf's broader problems.

"Somebody stuck a stick in a wasp's nest and stirred it up," said Herdis Neil, a Cajun and a third-generation trapper who lives in Montegut. He wants to see new barrier islands built to protect coastal marshes from gulf waves. "This coast has been disappearing for years, and now they're listening. Maybe we'll finally save the coast."

That, theoretically, is what Mabus is supposed to do. But it's unclear just how many of the gulf's long-standing ills he'll try to fix.

"The answers will come from the people on the Gulf Coast," he said at a recent meeting. "If we weren't committed, I wouldn't be here."

So scientists and local residents wonder: Will he really want to take on the problem of Louisiana disappearing? The state government said this week that erosion eats away 29 square miles -- more than Arlington County -- every year.

What about the gulf's "dead zone"? This year, it covered 7,722 square miles of the gulf, an area nearly the size of Massachusetts that lacked the oxygen that some fish, crabs and oysters need to breathe.

But fixing it would require making changes all the way up the Mississippi River, which brings down the pollutants that feed the algae blooms that suck out the oxygen -- making changes at feedlots in Iowa and sewage plants in Illinois.

"I can't see how they could just restore everything that needs restoration. There's just too many problems," said Nancy Rabalais, who heads the Louisiana Universities Marine Consortium, a research station near the gulf.

She worries, in essence, that the gulf will simply be returned to its regularly scheduled disaster.

"It doesn't have the political attention" that the spill commanded, she said.



Fahrenthold reported from Washington. Staff writer Michael Leahy contributed to this report.

View all comments that have been posted about this article.

© 2010 The Washington Post Company