Final oil well sealing is small comfort to suffering, anxious Gulf residents


News that BP’s busted well will probably be sealed once and for all this weekend brings little comfort to many along the Gulf Coast who are still paying dearly for the high-seas mistakes of the company and its partners.

BP’s promise to stick around until all those hurt by the oil spill are made whole means very different things to different people, from Louisiana fishers to Mississippi seafood processors, Alabama business owners to tourism workers in the Florida Panhandle. And for many, it’s not just about money.
“I’m dealing with anxiety,” said fishing guide Mike Helmer. “It affects your quality of life, your property values. There’s just so many ways this affected us but nobody is talking about that.”

Down in the bayous of southern Louisiana, it could be years before life, and the fishing that sustains it, returns to normal.

For Helmer, whole again means a return to life as if there never was an oil spill, as if October and November were booked solid like any other year, his coffers full from a robust summer season, and that pit in his stomach gone.

“That’s when I’ll feel better. But who knows how long it’s going to take. It may be four or five years,” he said, shrugging.

The well itself could be pronounced dead by Sunday, as BP completes a relief well it has been drilling all summer. A temporary cap has kept oil from spilling into the Gulf since mid-July, but five months after the initial explosion that killed 11 rig workers and sent 200 million gallons of oil spewing into the Gulf, the impact is far from over.

The emotional toll is immeasurable. Stress and anxiety plague people from all walks of life.

Louisiana oysterman Byron Encalade said oil from the spill has killed his oysterbeds. He’s getting some money from BP by helping out in the cleanup, he said, but not enough to support the extended family he’s responsible for.

“When you have people who rely on you for their existence, it puts some serious pressure on you,” Encalade said. “And who’s going to hire a 56-year-old man to do something else? I got diabetes and high blood pressure. I can’t even go back to driving trucks.”

In the bayous, a trio of shirtless shrimpers chain-smoke cigarettes in the shade.

They’re back to fishing, but business isn’t good. Hardly anyone is buying.

“People, they’re scared to eat it,” said Randy Borne, Jr., owner of a roadside bait and shrimp shack.

There are two kinds of fishermen in these parts – those who have some cash reserves and those, like Borne, who need money now.

“All we want is to get through the winter. We never worry about next year,” Borne said from his seat on top of a white cooler that should be filled with shrimp but is nearly empty. “That’ll be whole.”

He looked a few feet away to shrimper Donald Johnfroe, Jr.

“You?” Borne asked, his eyebrows raised.

“All I want is what I lost, then I’m whole,” Johnfroe said, pulling deeply off a cigarette. “Everything I’m making now is going to pay off debt from this summer. I’m behind on my child support payments, house payments. I need money.”

Both are still waiting on checks from claims filed with the Gulf Coast Claims Facility administering a $20 billion BP compensation fund. It’s been weeks, and no money yet.

As of Sept. 15, only 26 percent of nearly 63,000 claims along the coast had been paid by the fund, for a total of $156.9 million.

In the Louisiana barrier island of Grand Isle, shrimp processor Dean Blanchard says he’s had to lay off 80 of his 90 workers. He says he’s received about $168,000 from BP despite losses this shrimping season that he estimates at $2.5 million.

“And I had to pay $488,000 in bills with that $168,000,” Blanchard said.

Across the Gulf region, in Louisiana, Alabama, Mississippi and Florida, shrimp catches are down about 70 percent from last year’s hauls, largely because many fishermen are still working for BP in the cleanup, and Gulf shrimp prices have plummeted because of low demand.

Many who could be shrimping are staying at the docks because they can’t cover the cost of fuel and paying deck hands by selling shrimp at current prices. Losses are being estimated in the millions of dollars industrywide.

Tony Kennon, mayor of Orange Beach, Ala., said whole, in the deepest sense of the word, may never be attainable.

“They will never be able to give me back my summer with my 4-year-old son,” Kennon said. “This was our summer to start fishing together.”

Daren Beaudo, a BP spokesman, insisted that his company will “make things right,” adding that the $20 billion fund “is neither a floor nor a ceiling.”

“Knowing precisely when we’re through isn’t something we can predict right now,” Beaudo said. “It will be a long process but one we are committed to seeing through.”

The BP fund is currently paying people for their short-term losses. Later this year, it will begin offering long-term payouts, with the caveat that those who accept the big checks must agree not to sue BP.

The fund’s administrator, attorney Kenneth Feinberg, has acknowledged payouts have been slow, but promised more money was on the way.

“The final payments I promise you are going to be extremely generous,” Feinberg recently told an anxious Alabama crowd.

Mississippi seafood processor Keath Ladner thinks six months is not enough time to decide on a final settlement because no one knows how long the losses will persist. His business has been closed since April 30 because none of his national buyers will take his product.

“The restaurants can get their seafood from somewhere else, the tourists will come back,” Ladner said. “But the fishermen will be the last ones to know what the long-term effects are going to be.”

It could be years before scientists understand the full impact on fish larvae, crabs, oysters and shrimp nurseries, he said, not to mention restoring the image of Gulf seafood as a safe product.

Whole, Ladner said, means “wait and see.”

Those feeling less than whole include many people who don’t even live on the coast, people like cosmetologist Candace Jeans.

The single mother in Foley, Ala., about 10 miles inland, said many of her clients’ husbands who do live and work along the coast are either out of work or broke from a summer that saw few tourists.

“When their husbands are not able to work, I don’t get paid,” Jeans said, explaining that her clients can simply do without her beauty treatments.

Tourists have slowly started returning to Alabama and Florida Panhandle beaches, where some oily sand and tar balls persist but the heavy crude is no longer washing ashore. Still, the summer’s sales are lost, funds that typically carry these businesses through the winter season.

Dana Powell, manager of the Paradise Inn in Pensacola Beach, said Labor Day weekend brought droves of tourists back to the coast. She wants the lost summer revenues, but believes next season will see the region whole again.

“I don’t think people are afraid anymore,” Powell said. “People missed the beach. They’ll come back next year if it’s safe and clean.”

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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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