Almost two weeks have now passed since oil began gushing from a leak in a deepwater oil well in the Gulf of Mexico leased by the British oil conglomerate BP. As the massive slick crept toward the Louisiana wetlands, the media appear to have pretty much settled on "the Gulf Coast oil spill"as the term of choice when referring to the catastrophe. No doubt this was a welcome development to BP executives. The last major oil spill off the American coast, after all, was named after the company that spilled the oil, not the place where the oil was spilled. Otherwise we'd be referring to the "Prince William Sound" spill instead of the "Exxon Valdez" spill.
But in the rural coastal communities of southeastern Louisiana, where residents are bracing for the imminent destruction of their economy and their way of life, it may as well be called "the BP spill." In the fishing villages of Plaquemines and St. Bernard parishes—which are poised to take the brunt of the oil—the anger toward BP is palpable and growing.
Last Friday, hundreds of local fishermen, shrimpers, and oystermen gathered in the gymnasium of the Boothville-Venice Elementary School in Plaquemines. BP had offered to hire some of them on a contract basis, to lay protective booms designed to shield the marshes and swamps from the incoming oil. The idea was to make use of the fishermen's intimate knowledge of the waterways and to provide them with badly needed income.
It could also have been a crisis-management tactic, an attempt by BP to mollify a group of people who might otherwise become the company's most persuasive detractors. If so, it didn't work. The men fumed at the lack of any guarantee of work from BP, and at the stipulation that they would have to provide their own fuel and supplies, for which they would be reimbursed later.
As the hours wore on and the fishermen waited for a turn to receive a copy of the prospective contract, the atmosphere in the crowded gym grew tense. BP representatives asked officers from the Plaquemines sheriff's department to hand out the contracts. Each time a stack of contracts emerged, groups of two or three dozen men pushed to the front of the room. One police officer, his sunglasses resting atop his head, cast a stern glance at a crowd of sullen men gathering around him. "Get in line! Single file! If you don't line up, boy, you ain't getting a contract!"
Outside, seven police cars sat in the parking lot, where more officers kept an eye on the men as they milled around. A shrimper named Jude Barrois rested against a pickup truck and read the contract, shaking his head. "We gotta supply BP with fuel? That's ridiculous—they're a goddamn oil company!" he said. "I spent everything I had getting ready for the season, and now there is no season, because of their damn oil." (The contract says that BP will "provide or otherwise compensate" them for fuel, but the BP representatives at the meeting were clear that this meant reimbursement.)
Fishermen in southeastern Louisiana are not accustomed to having an adversarial relationship with oil companies. "For years, there's been an almost symbiotic relationship between the oil industry and the local fishermen," said Peter Ricchiuti, the director of research at Tulane University's business school. Oil rigs in the gulf act like artificial reefs, Ricchiuti said. Barnacles grow on the rigs, attracting small fish, which in turn attract bigger fish. Partly for this reason, he said, there hasn't been much tension between the two industries. "Now these people are furious, and that's new," Ricchiuti said.
Earlier today, BP CEO Tony Hayward made the rounds on the morning news shows, where he blamed the leak on the company that owned the rig and said it "wasn't our accident." Hayward also highlighted the company's commitment to working with local communities and fishermen. But demonstrating BP's good intentions will be an uphill battle. Early Sunday morning, at a marina in Hopedale, a tiny hamlet in St. Bernard parish, around 60 fishermen who had been lucky enough to get contracts loaded their boats with the protective boom BP had hired them to deploy. The mood was not one of gratitude.
"I think we should boycott BP. I really do," said Ben Stuckart, a young oysterman. "That'd be our way of saying thanks for ruining our lives."
Local officials also made clear their frustration. David Dysart, the director of emergency preparedness for St. Bernard parish, complained that BP was moving too slowly. "If equipment is made available to us, and they get out of our way, we'll protect our marshlands," he said, his voice rising. "Give my people the boom. Just drop it off and get out of the way."
Others seemed too shell-shocked to be angry. "I don't know what we're gonna do," said Kevin Heier, a crab trapper and seafood dealer. "I never thought that it would end this way. After Katrina, we came back. But this is gonna seal our fate."
Indeed, the effects of the BP oil leak on these communities will go far beyond the economy, according to J. Steven Picou, a sociologist at the University of Alabama who has researched the long-term effectsof environmental disasters, including the Exxon Valdez spill. In the Alaskan towns affected by that spill, Picou explained, "the psychological and social impacts have persisted over time: high rates of community conflict, PTSD, depression, even suicide."
Much of the criticism of BP has centered around the fact that the company apparently had no backup plan in the event of a failure of the well's blowout preventer, a crucial piece of equipment intended to prevent a massive leak of this kind. "There was no good Plan B," observed Ed Overton, an oil-spill expert in the environmental studies department of Louisiana State University. Critics have pointed out, for example, that the rig lacked a type of remote-control shutoff switch that is required on offshore wells in Brazil and Norway.
As they waited at the marina in St. Bernard to load protective booms onto their boats, a number of fishermen also complained about BP's planning failure. I asked a few of them how they would get by in the aftermath of the spill. "We can't collect unemployment, because we're all pretty much self-employed," said one. Ben Stuckart, the oysterman, said that local officials had promised the men they would receive food stamps. "That's fine and everything," he said. "But how am I gonna pay my rent with food stamps?"
Said Kevin Heier, the crab trapper: "I guess we've got no plan B, either."