Cover Story

What lies beneath

"What lies beneath" Continued...

Issue: "Gulf toil," June 5, 2010

Ladner isn't optimistic about the industry's future. He thinks the massive amounts of oil in the Gulf could cause long-term damage to fisheries: "I believe that what's on the bottom is going to be a later nightmare." He's also worried about the massive amounts of chemical dispersants workers are dumping into the water to break up the oil. "Anything that's got a chemical strong enough to disperse oil-what can that do to fisheries?" he asks. "If the fish eat all this and get contaminated-how can you eat that?"

Some scientists have similar worries: An assessment by the National Institute for Undersea Science and Technology reported that the underwater pipe may be spewing far more oil than BP estimates, and that the substance could create massive "dead zones" where creatures can't live because of lack of oxygen in the water. That could create a major problem in the water's food chain.

Vernon Asper, a professor of marine science at the University of Southern Mississippi, told NPR that the spill is creating huge plumes of oil in the water. He said the largest plume could be 15 or 20 miles long and 4 or 5 miles wide.

Others expressed concerns about the dispersant that workers are dumping into the water. The product is among the more toxic chemicals available for use in water, and among the least effective in breaking up oil, according to information provided by the Environmental Protection Agency. EPA officials defended use of the chemical, saying it was on hand in large quantities after the spill and far less toxic than oil.

That's not much comfort to Harold Strong. From a shrimp boat docked next to Ladner's equipment, Strong says he thinks shrimping is over for now. Strong, 58, has fished these waters for 45 years. He mostly sells to Ladner, but water closures have left him without work since the spill. He hopes to work for BP, helping with cleanup, but the transition is hard: "Everything was picking up again, but this has ended it."

Strong says despite the massive accident, he thinks off-shore drilling will continue. "They can debate all they want in Washington, but when it all comes down to it, they all drive the same kind of vehicles, and they all want to get around, and nobody changes," he says. "Money doesn't make the world go round. Fuel does. Without the fuel, it doesn't matter how much money you got-everything stops."

For now, President Obama has called for a temporary stop to new off-shore drilling. Environmental groups have called for a permanent ban, saying the spill proves such drilling is too risky.

But Samuel Thernstrom of the American Enterprise Institute says it's important to consider the rarity of oil spill accidents. And he says the emerging picture of human error in the oil spill teaches a lesson. "What we've discovered is not some uncontrollable technical challenge with deepwater drilling," he says. "There were mistakes made by different companies and the federal agencies regulating those companies."

While BP's CEO has admitted that the company should have better planned for such a disaster instead of improvising solutions that took weeks to implement, the corporation has also laid blame on Transocean, the company that owned the rig, even as the federal government blamed BP. Others have focused on the government's failures in the disaster.

U.S. Interior Secretary Ken Salazar did acknowledge significant problems in the Minerals Management Service-the federal agency that oversees drilling-including ethical scandals and lax oversight of oil companies. But Salazar suggested the administration would continue to pursue off-shore drilling, despite some calls to end such projects.

Conn Carroll of the Heritage Foundation says that less federal regulation may be a better response to the spill. He points out that the federal government caps corporate liability for oil disasters at $75 million. Carroll says imposing fewer regulations and full responsibility for all damages could motivate companies to guard against risks without federal interference.

(For now, BP has said it will pay for damages beyond $75 million.)

Back in Bay St. Louis, many residents are less worried about who's to blame than what will happen. Jean Larroux, pastor of Lagniappe Presbyterian Church, says the community may simply have to wait and see. Lagniappe began in the aftermath of Katrina, and its members have devoted years to helping the town's residents rebuild. They'd like to help again with this disaster, but there's little they can do: Officials require most cleanup volunteers or workers to undergo a 40-hour hazmat training class. Even those with training are still waiting for deployment.

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