Three months of oil

John Terrett examines what the BP oil spill has meant for the people of Louisiana.

    Louisiana's economy is split between oil, tourism and fishing - all of which are suffering as a result of the spill [GALLO/GETTY]

    I can vividly recall April 20, 2010. The Deep Water Horizon oil rig had exploded overnight killing 11 men and in our morning news meeting in Washington DC the story was just one of many on the agenda that day.

    How would we treat it? Did we have pictures? Would anyone from BP talk to us? What about the Coastguard?

    None of us could have known then that the explosion would lead to the biggest environmental disaster in US history and that three months later we would still be on the story here in Louisiana and all along the Gulf coast.

    Choked to death

    The spill is also expected to affect bird migration patterns [GALLO/GETTY]

    Since April I have spent approximately seven weeks in the Gulf region getting to know the people and seeing the clean-up operation and the compensation process for myself.

    I have also seen how terrible crude oil can be when you come into close contact with it - the same crude oil that keeps the lights on and our vehicles moving!

    I will never forget seeing Light Sweet Crude in the marshes of Pass a Loutre, Louisiana. It had stained the stems of the roseau canes which are now slowly being choked to death.

    Fishing boat captain Pete Young took me and my cameramen Martin Asturias and Tony Zumbardo out to Pass a Loutre. Pete was earning good money working for BP three days a week - but wondered how long it would last. He also wondered whether his fishing customers who normally flock to this part of the world during the summer season would return next year.

    I was able to jump off Pete's boat into the shallow waters of the Gulf at Pass a Loutre wearing a pair of borrowed waders. I collected some oil in a plastic bottle. It was thick, dark and very sticky. And it had a sweet smell to it too - scientists tell me that is the chemical Benzene.

    in depth

    As we filmed BP clean-up workers in small boats were laying metre after metre of boom. Boom is made of brightly coloured plastic strips. It gets pushed into the marshes by the winds and tide. Some boom is made of cotton which swiftly gets inundated with crude and is seldom replaced as quickly as it should be, leaving a hideous cotton mess by the side of the marshes.

    The water at Pass a Loutre was extremely smooth on my two visits but there was a sheen on the surface that Pete had not noticed before. It was caused by the presence of the oil.

    Testing faith

    Locals may have to battle BP for compensation for many months to come [GALLO/GETTY]

    Away from Pass a Loutre I will never forget seeing that same sheen coming ashore at fisherman Cristian Delano's house in Grand Isle. Cristian burst into tears before our camera as he recalled how he had just found oil in the waters off his property for the first time. 

    A deeply Christian man of Italian extraction, he was convinced that Mother Nature or God - "it's all the same thing," he said - had been helping the region by keeping the weather fairly stable. Through his tears he wondered aloud: "I don't know how much longer she'll go on helping us."

    Cristian spoke to the duality of the oil issue here in Louisiana. He said he and his girlfriend loved to walk on the beach at Grand Isle at night to see the oil rigs lit up. But, he hates what BP has done and wishes the federal authorities would step aside and let Grand Isle residents use their local knowledge to expedite the clean up.

    The beach at Grand Isle looked like a scene from the movie Saving Private Ryan.  Cristian told me: "Know this! Everything's, everything's being stripped from us. If BP doesn't get out of the way and stop all this bureaucratic bull and red tape that we're not going to exist ... I'm going to have friends that end up killing themselves because of this. They can't pay their bills. They can't fish. They can't take care of their families."

    Local businessman Ryan Lambert from Buras is a hotelier who like so many other small business people was hoping 2010 would be the first good year since Hurricane Katrina five years ago. But things have not worked out like that. Many rooms in his Cajun Fishing Adventures lodge have gone unrented because the groups of men who normally use the high end facility have cancelled their trips.

    Ryan is also an environmentalist whose speciality is the delicate marshland of southern Louisiana. He recently testified before congress on environmental issues, getting a standing ovation from those in the room. 

    Ryan told us how the oil spill will affect this year's annual bird migration from north to south America. "The birds will not get the nutrients they need from the algae," he explained.

    No tourists

    There are tar balls on the beaches of Florida and tourists are staying away [GALLO/GETTY]

    Sunday, July 4 - normally a major public holiday in the US - was a write-off this year. I saw tar balls on the "sugar" beaches of Pensacola Florida where the sand is so white it hurts your eyes to look at it in the sunlight. 

    A local real estate agent told me: "We got the tar on Wednesday but we've had no tourists for two months."

    Florida's governor was among 400 people who turned out to protest against irresponsible drilling. Ironically, Florida rejected deep water drilling years ago and was ridiculed by people in Louisiana. Nevertheless, Florida has paid a high price for the Deep Water Horizon disaster which took place off Louisiana's coast.

    We met up with a fishing boat crew who had been working for BP and were told to steer right through the Corexit dispersants only to find soon after that they needed hospital treatment for severe headaches, nausea and other unmentionable human ailments. BP confined them to port but denied the dispersants were to blame for their illness. Tests continue on the effects of Corexit on humans.

    I will never forget fisherman's wife, Vanessa Ragass. We met Vanessa at a Catholic church services drop-in centre in Port Sulphur, Louisiana. She was on the verge of tears as she recounted how every time she went to BP for help she was met by a different person.

    "They say oh well by the way we wanna help you but come back in a couple of days and then when you come back and look for them they're gone there's somebody else there oh well start all over again and it's a repetition and you're going over and over again," she said.

    What about BP?

    Many question whether BP can survive the disaster [GALLO/GETTY]

    On the hook for the cost of containment, clean-up and compensation, BP faces at least 300 lawsuits against it and a federal fine for every drop of oil that hits Gulf waters.

    Once known as a proud UK-based multi-national company, it has been spiralling out of control since April 20.

    Round these parts BP is known as "Beach Polluter" or "Beyond Pathetic". You see people wearing t-shirts with these kinds of slogans on all the time.

    Tony Hayward, BP's chief executive, once known for being a clever scientist and beloved by shareholders, has become an international joke. Remember such classic Hayward moments as "I want my life back" and the now infamous yachting trip to Cowes?

    Many question whether the firm can survive all of this. The rumour mill suggests BP executives are talking to a so-called "White Knight" company or Sovereign Wealth Fund. The idea would be for such a firm to buy anywhere between $12bn and $18bn of BP assets to make sure the oil company is solvent and can live to fight another day.

    Apache Corporation, the US' largest independent oil firm based in Houston, Texas, is the favourite to take a stake in BP right now. The Libyan National Oil Company is another.

    As I write the rogue well has been capped for four days and despite various scares and false alarms appears to be holding up under the pressure tests that the federal government is allowing to continue on a rolling 24-hour basis - possibly until the well is finally capped with cement in the weeks to come.

    As for the people of the Gulf region they will have to put up with tar balls on the beaches and oil in the marshes for sometime yet. Many will have to battle BP for money either through the government's compensation scheme or via the courts for many months to come.

    However, the people of Louisiana, in particular, are made of strong stuff. They have been through tough times before and the feeling round here is that they will pull through once again - especially if the world can see the oil is not flowing into the Gulf.

    SOURCE: Al Jazeera


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