'It's Not Over': Oil Remains as Life Goes On 6 Months After BP Spill

Life in the Gulf shows signs of progress as crude slick and questions linger.

ByBy Matt Gutman and Enjoli Francis
October 20, 2010, 5:38 AM

Oct. 20, 2010 — -- There is evidence that the Gulf of Mexico is healing: The deserted marina in Venice, La., once invaded by camera crews and work boats, has been reclaimed by charter boat captains who haul yellowfin tuna off their skiffs and hang them up with pride. Only 7 percent of the Gulf is still closed to fishing. The fishermen -- and their smiles -- have returned.

But 40 miles south of New Orleans, oil from the BP spill six months ago continues to leach into the landscape.

The April 20 Deepwater Horizon rig explosion, 50 miles off the Louisiana coast, killed 11 workers and released nearly 180 million gallons of oil into the Gulf. Three months after the well was capped, the oil still keeps coming up.

Through the narrow canals toward Barataria Bay, where some of the most prized shrimping grounds in the world can be found, Frank Lamere and his cleanup crew have been working on the same marsh for four months.

He said the oil spreads for miles. "It's definitely here. Look at the green grass under it. It's gonne die," said Lamere, a former fisherman. He and his workers call the area the toilet.

Peter Lehner, executive director of the Natural Resources Defense Council, cited official estimates that say 50 percent of the leaked crude could still be in the Gulf.

"Some has been picked up, but of course not much of it," Lehner said. "Recently scientists are discovering underwater oil plumes. Every time they look again, they see oil in the sediment."

Lamere said the government and BP need to put more effort into the cleanup. Every day the tide washes the marsh anew with oil. By morning, the reeds have been painted brown, and when the sun heats up the soggy turf, oil oozes out.

Lamere and his crew say they've vacuumed about 2,000 gallons a day from this spot alone for weeks.

"Obviously you can see that it's not over, just because they capped the well," he said Friday. By Tuesday, the cleanup effort had been scaled down and Lamere's team and others had been laid off.Coast Guard Rear Adm. Paul Zukunft, the government's on-scene coordinator, said that the number of cleanup workers has been cut from 48,000 to 13,000.

Government scientists say that the Gulf's ecosystem is hardier than they had anticipated. Steve Murawski, chief fisheries scientist for the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration, likened the environmental impact to a concussion, not to a death blow.

2,000 Gallons of Oil Vacuumed a Day

In Grand Terre Island, La., the population of birds is much healthier and it's difficult to find one that's been oiled at all. Last week, crews found a single oiled bird.

According to the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service, 4,300 oiled birds were found dead -- many fewer than had been feared -- as well as four mammals. Three of them were dolphins.

Marine biologists like Mobi Solangi of the Marine Mammal Research Center in Gulfport, Miss., said, however, that many dolphines and turtles may have died in the sea.

Though Mother Nature seems to be healing, the psychological landscape of the Gulf remains dark. Many fear that prices and the demand for Gulf seafood will never return.

Glen Foche, a shrimper fixing his nets outside of Port Sulfur, La., found shrimp stocks hit-or-miss this season. He reached into a cooler full of shrimp, pulled one out and plucked off its head, revealing a row of brown gills.

"You tell me what that is. That's oil," Foche said. "What else is it? What's gonna happen to this shrimp five years from now? Is anybody gonna be able to eat it? That's what I want to know."

The government insists the seafood is safe. In 30,000 samples tested, it says there hasn't been a single trace of oil. However, the Gulf's famous oysters have been devastated because of the freshwater flooding intended to keep the oil out of the Mississippi River Delta.

"Too much fresh water causes oysters to die and that's what happened," said Al Sunseri, owner of the 134-year-old P&J Oysters in New Orleans. "It was a Catch-22. We had to do it. We had to keep the oil at bay and it worked."

He said it will take three to five years for the oysters to come back; meanwhile, his business is down by 85 percent.

Sunseri now makes his own delivers since he's fired most of his staff. He opened his giant cooler, normally brimming with sacks of oysters. A few cardboard boxes of oysters sat in the corner.

"And from Washington State!" he said.

For Oyster Business, a 'Catch-22'

He hasn't yet filed for damages but 200,000 others have and more than $1.4 billion has been disbursed from a $20 billion BP compensation fund. So far only 500 claims have been denied.

In addition to the compensation fund, BP has paid out $965 million total -- $569 million to locals who helped in the Vessels of Opportunity cleanup program and $396 million to fishermen and others who lost money during the spill.

For Plaquemines Parish President Billy Nungesser, however, the fight isn't over because he says the response to the spill remains scattered. "I can't tell you who's in charge. ... [There's] a new guy at BP, new guy in the Coast Guard."

The Natural Resources Defense Council's Lehner said there was a real concern in the Gulf that the rest of the country was moving on from the spill crisis.

"Obviously for the family and friends, the 11 people who died, this is certainly not over," he said. "For the people who lost a year's income. ... And for all of those who are uncertain about their future, this isn't over."

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