Oil-spill commission begins work by hearing from coastal residents

Washington Post Staff Writer
Monday, July 12, 2010; 7:58 PM

NEW ORLEANS -- Cautious optimism about continuing progress towards capping the Deepwater Horizon well mixed Monday with grim reminders of a prolonged recovery as the presidential commission looking into the BP disaster and the future of offshore drilling in the United States began its work.

The first day of commission hearings came on Day 84 of the spill, and co-chairman Bob Graham, a former senator and governor of Florida, noted, "I wish we had the power to bring immediate solutions" but "that is beyond our ability."

Testimony about the dire future joined testimony about the dire present as a senior Coast Guard official spoke about the tar balls and mats of oil that will wash up for "weeks if not months." Oystermen and sports anglers described businesses already withering.

Wearing a tie tack in the shape of an oyster shell, Sal Sunseri told the seven-member bipartisan commission of his fifth-generation oyster processing company, which has laid off 11 of 19 workers as major beds remain off-limits. The oyster, Sunseri reminded the commission, "doesn't move much," leaving his P&J Oyster Company in New Orleans to wait out the capping and the cleanup.

"I don't see a future in the oyster business as it once was," Sunseri said.

Several witnesses pleaded for commissioners to take a quick position on the Obama administration's deepwater drilling moratorium, most forcefully by companies that service the oil industry. They contend that rigs and jobs will leave U.S. waters if deepwater drilling does not resume.

Larry Dickerson, chief executive of Diamond Offshore Drilling, said that two deepwater rigs will move to Egypt and West Africa, rather than wait out the six-month ban. The rigs had employed 150 people.

Dickerson said his employees point to the administration's reaction to auto industry troubles, "and they ask, 'How come they get bailed out and we get driven out?' "

Cherri Foytlin, 37, who works at a tiny local newspaper in Rayne, La., also urged a lifting of the moratorium to save jobs in coastal Louisiana. When commissioners discuss the spill, she said, "you are not talking about a big oil company. You are talking about people like me and my six kids."

Foytlin added, "We don't have a lot of faith in Washington down here because of [Hurricane] Katrina. I hate to say that. Fix that." She concluded by echoing the marketing slogan used by BP since the spill: "You can make that right."

Also addressing the commission was Drew Landry, 37, a musician and crayfish fisherman from Scott, La. He pointed out that another speaker had testified that she worked for a local Communist newspaper. Jutting his thumb toward her, Landry said that Gulf residents were "not just angry. This lady turned Communist over this thing."

Landry brought the room to silence when he pulled up his guitar, adjusted his baseball cap and sang about the loss he said he feels with "oil bleeding from a gaping hole" and a way of life "that won't be around any more."

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