Fishermen turn to attorneys for help.


PANAMA CITY BEACH — For David Plummer and thousands more boat captains like him, the worst thing is the oil nobody can see.

It isn’t the dirty brown whitecaps that lap over oil booms in Louisiana or the offshore sheen that moves west with the wind. It’s whatever poison is spreading underwater, swirling in deep currents.

“We’re screwed,” Capt. Plummer said, taking a drag from a cigarette after recounting all the directions the toxic oil could be headed. “It’s here whether we see it with our eyes or not.”

Plummer, the 49-year-old captain of the charter boat The Great Escape, has had one phone call this month (usually his strongest month for fishing reservations) that wasn’t a cancellation. His schedule for June, normally booked solid, is wide open.

“I’ve never had a job on land,” he said, “and my whole way of life is about to be gone.”

This was the somber tone Thursday night at Capt. Anderson’s, where a small group of fishermen, boat captains and one or two rental property owners met with a few of the many attorneys who have set up shop along the Panhandle, ready to sign clients for litigation against oil giant BP, the company responsible for the Deepwater Horizon oil disaster.

“When I look at this situation, I’ve got to figure you guys are worried as hell,” Fort Lauderdale attorney Bob McKee told them, gathered around drinks in one of the restaurant’s back rooms. “What are you going to be doing if it’s going to get as bad as it can get?”

The discussion lasted about two hours, and in it McKee emphasized the long-term threat the spill (and chemical efforts to clean it up) poses to the fishery and other industries surrounding it. The untested and unknown dispersants being used to break up the oil on the water’s surface, he said, could be as deadly to sea life as the oil itself.

“Someone made the decision we’d rather have the poison in the water where you can’t see it than on people’s beaches,” McKee said. “It’s the grand BP experiment out there, and you guys get to bear the consequences of it.”

McKee is working with fellow environmental attorney Stuart Smith, who was in Destin on Thursday, and local attorneys Jim Appleman and Rusty Shepard, who also were at the restaurant. The out-of-town attorneys are establishing an office at the Emerald Grande in Destin, McKee said, and plan to be in town for an extended period.

In a telephone interview Thursday, Smith (who claims he was the first to inform the public BP’s enormous containment dome failed) said his team has subpoenaed BP for the chemical composition of its dispersant, which is being injected near the well head despite its unknown effects down the road.

Attorneys also have subpoenaed the “fingerprint” of the oil still spewing from the ground, and paid experts are out testing area waters for base levels for comparison after the oil reaches here.

“Don’t worry, I’m going to make sure Mr. BP pays,” Smith said.

It appears the local fishermen are counting on it. Capt. Derrick Blakely, who owns the charter boat No Problem, said his calls have stopped, unless it’s someone cancelling or even asking if he’s OK.

“They think you’re just down here wading in oil,” he said.

Plummer likened the dispersant method to an old trick to hide a few gallons of boat engine oil spilled on the Gulf: Squirt some dishwashing soap on it.

It’s illegal, he said, because it doesn’t clean the spill — it only makes it disappear from the surface.

“That’s exactly what they’re doing now,” he said, and he worried about where and when the mixture will fall.

“When that goes to the bottom,” he said of the oil and chemicals, “nothing’s going to live through it.”

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