BP’s oil lingers, seen and unseen: An editorial


Oil is no longer spewing from the damaged Macondo well head; Tropical Storm Bonnie didn’t push crude deep into Louisiana’s coastal wetlands as some feared, and commercial fishers are finally returning to areas east of the Mississippi River.

Those are undeniably positive developments for the Gulf Coast, which for months has been reeling from BP’s runaway well and the environmental and economic damage it has caused. But as hopeful as those signs are, they do not mean that the disaster is over.

Unfortunately, that’s been the tone of recent media reports as well as chatter in the blogosphere. But the success of the temporary cap in stopping the gusher is certainly not the end of the story.

BP has not even permanently capped the well. That’s something that could happen early this week, if the so-called static kill process succeeds. Failing that, closure will depend on the relief well that’s due to be completed later this month.

But even then, this region still has a long way to go in recovering from a disaster that fouled the Gulf of Mexico with tens of millions of gallons of crude oil.

Assessing the extent of the damage to natural resources, as required under the federal Oil Spill Act and a similar Louisiana law, is itself a lengthy process, and one that has yet to begin. Dozens of public trustees — federal agencies as well as the affected states — will participate in the damage assessment process. Gov. Jindal has appointed the state Coastal Protection and Restoration Authority as Louisiana’s lead agency for trustee issues. That agency was told this week that it could take seven to 10 years to determine how much BP and other parties will have to pay.

Nor is the damage over. Oil may be less visible on the surface of the Gulf of Mexico now that the gusher has been plugged, but just because it’s harder to see, that doesn’t mean it is gone. Scientists and oil spill experts say that about 175 million gallons of oil-based pollution is still in the Gulf. It’s there in tiny droplets below the surface, but those will continue to come up as slicks in weeks and months to come.

That’s not the only manifestation. Two captains of so-called “vessels of opportunity” helping with the cleanup told Times-Picayune reporter Bob Marshall that they saw more oil at South Pass on Tuesday than they have during the entire crisis.

“I don’t know where everyone else is looking, but if they think there’s no more oil out there, they should take a ride with me,” charter captain Mike Frenette said.

Another captain, Don Sutton, saw floating tar balls for 15 miles from South Pass to Southwest Pass. “And that wasn’t all we saw. There were patches of oil in that chocolate mousse stuff, slicks and patches of grass with oil on them,” he said.

Mr. Frenette said other captains told him they had seen long ribbons of oil off the coast at Empire.

Bob Dudley, who is taking over as BP’s chief executive officer when Tony Hayward steps down Oct. 1, said that it’s “not too soon for a scaleback.” In areas where there is no oil, “you probably don’t need to see people in hazmat suits on the beach,” he said.

But oil pollution could continue to show up in areas that seem to be free of it. BP must continue to be ready to move in quickly and aggressively to clean it up.

Oil that’s lurking below the surface doesn’t have to look ugly to be a problem. “Oil is composed of many, many more components than the black stuff you see,” said Doug Rader, chief ocean scientists for the Environmental Defense Fund. “And when that black stuff is gone, there’s still plenty of those components — many of which are extremely toxic — still in the water.”

How those toxins will affect marine life and the health of the Gulf for months and years to come remains an unanswered question.

Mr. Dudley said that the company is not pulling back and remains committed to making things right. Louisianians continue to expect the company to honor that commitment.

He did not agree with suggestions that the environmental effects have been exaggerated, and that’s reassuring. “Anyone who thinks this wasn’t a catastrophe must be far away from it,” he said.

But the fact is, most of the country is far away from the Gulf of Mexico. Now that people aren’t seeing images of the oil geyser every day, it’s likely that national attention will evaporate – far more quickly than the oil.

Louisianians have learned the hard way that a narrative about a disaster can take on a life of its own. That certainly happened after Hurricane Katrina, when some questioned whether New Orleans should be rebuilt. We had to walk a fine line, keeping the disaster on the radar screen without scaring people away.

The oil spill presents a similar challenge. Florida hotels and time shares want vacationers to return. Louisiana fishers and restaurants want people to eat Gulf seafood with confidence. Charter boat captains want tourists back.

But we can’t let the story be that everything is just back to normal, because it isn’t. Not yet. And until it is, Louisiana needs to make sure that BP is on the job.

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Stuart H. Smith is an attorney based in New Orleans fighting major oil companies and other polluters.
Cooper Law Firm

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