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Gulf Coast Residents Still Worried, Angry, Frustrated

With the BP well apparently capped and not leaking, at least for now, I went back to a few of the Louisianans – our “voices from the spill’’ – some of whom I’ve known for years, other for many months.

I was curious if the capping had washed a big wave of relief over the Gulf States … or if they were expecting some kind of tsunami to follow on the heels of what most are regarding with cautious optimism as a positive sign.

Paul Templet recently retired as a professor of environmental science at LSU; for four years he was head of the state’s Department of Environmental Quality. His experience over the years, in a state long run by the oil industry, has made him a slightly cynical realist.

He answers my question – Why did it take BP so long? – with several of his own.

Why didn’t they have one of these caps sitting in a warehouse somewhere and put it to use three months ago. Why did they use so much dispersant, which makes the oil harder to recover. Injecting dispersants directly into the plume at the ocean floor means that the oil was distributed throughout the water column and will be difficult, if not impossible, to recover. Otherwise the oil would have risen to the surface and could then have been scooped or skimmed off the surface. But then it would have been visible and that’s why I suspect they were injecting dispersants. The booms and other stuff out there are basically useless.

“Only time will take care of the oil, but I suspect we’ll see it come ashore for years whenever we have a storm in the Gulf.”

Marylee Orr runs the state’s most effective environmental group, the 23-year-old Louisiana Environmental Action Network (L.E.A.N.). Like Templet, she skeptical if hopeful. “It seems to have worked but let’s not forget this is not a permanent fix. The relief well will still have to permanently plug the well bore so we still have a ways to go … and meanwhile we still have the crude oil slick and the dispersed oil plume coming onto shore.

Why did it take so long? She is convinced that no one ever really planned for a “worst-case scenario.”

“I almost fell out of my chair when I heard the Unified Command Center (in Houma) say there was no (plan to clean up a) worst case scenario because they didn’t believe it could ever happen.

“Also, when it comes to the clean-up, we are still using technology from 20 years ago, the exact same as when the Exxon Valdez spilled. I personally asked the EPA why there have been no advances in twenty years. And, for example, what is its plan for bio-remediation, because of all the marshes in Louisiana opposed to the beaches in the other Gulf States? We’re still not getting good answers.

One thing LEAN has noticed is an increase in suicide, substance abuse and domestic violence. “Plaquemine Parish has already seen domestic violence increase 100% since the disaster,” says Orr.

Ivor van Heerden is a coastal restoration expert. He oversaw the commission that investigated the levee failures during Hurricane Katrina and was then let go from his university research position at LSU when his report rubbed some the wrong way (by blaming the Army Corps of Engineers).

He began flyovers of the spill-impacted ocean within hours after the accident, and has been consulting with BP on how to clean up the mess.

In response to why the fix took so long, his take is that it required extremely difficult engineering, taking place a mile below the surface. “They had to fully research the problem; the integrity of the remaining riser; the structural integrity of the ocean bottom above the oil deposit; and then design a structure that would be multifaceted and allow complete closure but also the ability to bleed off oil if needed.”

His reaction to the capping is that “it is a real plus.” He also thinks the oiling of the Louisiana coastline would have been far worse already if they hadn’t somewhat successfully been managing the outflow of fresh water from the Mississippi River to combat it. “But the river is now down and the potential for serious oiling over a larger area exists. So far we have 63 miles of coastline impacted by heavy oiling.

Some locals are not as positive about the capping. “It’s like putting a Band-Aid on a dead man in my opinion,” crabber Jeff Ussury told the New York Times. He doubted the news of the capping was even true. “I started out kind of believing in them,” he said, “but I don’t believe in them at all anymore.”

“What’s to celebrate?” asked Kindra Arnesen is the wife of a shrimper from Plaquemines Parish, La., who I wrote about last week for having witnessed what BP called it’s “balloon and ponies” show.

“My way of life’s over, they’ve destroyed everything I know and love,” she said, before going on to explain, in detail, why she believes the pressure tests are likely to fail.

The most simple and direct response I got to my question (First reaction to the spill apparently being capped?) was from Dean Wilson, who lives on the edge of the Atchafalaya Swamp and is its caretaker. Dean is from Spain but has called the swamp home for the past 25 years. His two-word reply?

“Thanks God.”

Is Carol Browner …

I’ve been thinking about Carol Browner a lot these days. As President Obama’s     first-of-a-kind in-house czarina for energy policy, she’s got a big task, coordinating both energy and environmental policy among the myriad federal agencies and simultaneously leading the new National Energy Council. A rotting economy doesn’t help; despite all the good rhetoric and sincere intent finding new investment dollars for solar and wind, etc., will assuredly be tough during the next couple years.

I revisited a profile I’d written of Browner just after she was named head of the Environmental Protection Agency by Bill Clinton, in 1993.  She’d been running Florida’s environmental agency when chosen – at 37 – to run the 17,500 employee, $7 billion agency. The story I wrote, which ran in Audubon magazine, was headlined “Is Carol Browner In Over Her Head” … a title I did not choose, and which she was understandably not pleased with. The reality is, whether head of a cabinet level agency or even President, who does have previous experience at that level? Very, very few.

When I sat with her in her D.C. office, a child’s toys were scattered about. Her son is now twenty. Here’s what she said then, about the difficulties of her new job: “I’m optimistic. I have a five-year-old, and when I went to his kindergarten class to tell them about my job – I told them, ‘I save things’ – I was amazed that each of them new about recycling, and most could name an endangered species. It means that all our efforts are working, that there is hope, and that our job is worth doing.”

Browner is still the longest serving EPA chief ever, lasting the entirety of the Clinton Administration. We’ll keep our fingers crossed that she’ll be able to maintain that same level of optimism during these next four years.