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Feds Pressure BP to Intensify Efforts to Stem Gulf Coast Oil Leak

May 24, 2010 at 12:00 AM EDT
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Obama administration officials and senators reiterated Monday that they will hold BP responsible for cleaning up the oil leak in the Gulf of Mexico, as heavy oil continues to seep into fragile marshland along the coast. Correspondent Tom Bearden gives an update from Louisiana on the damage.
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JEFFREY BROWN: The Obama administration insisted today that BP must do more to stop the Gulf of Mexico oil spill. The oil company insisted it’s already trying as hard as it can. And, all the while, the damage spread.

More and more of the month-long oil spill blackened the Gulf Coast, as the anger with BP heated up there and in Washington. The oil giant’s chief operating officer, Doug Suttles, acknowledged as much as he may the rounds of network talk shows this morning.

DOUG SUTTLES, COO, Global Exploration, BP: They clearly are expecting us to — to get this flow stopped and to get this cleanup done as quickly and as quickly as possible to do. And they have been that way since the very beginning.

But, as you can imagine, that’s no different than our own view. We’re putting everything we know how to do at this. We have got the best people, the best scientists, whether it is from — from our own company or across the industry or from government. So, I think everyone is frustrated.

JEFFREY BROWN: The company says it has spent $760 million and counting on the spill. But, on Sunday in Houston, Interior Secretary Ken Salazar said he’s not completely confident BP knows what it’s doing.

KEN SALAZAR, U.S. interior secretary: If we find that they are not doing what they are supposed to be doing, we will push them out of the way appropriately, and we will move forward to make sure that everything is being done to protect the people of the Gulf Coast.

JEFFREY BROWN: Today, Salazar and Homeland Security Secretary Janet Napolitano pursued that theme, this time in Louisiana. They joined a Senate delegation in a flyover of the region.

JANET NAPOLITANO, U.S. homeland security secretary: We are going to stay on this and stay on BP until this gets done and it gets done the right way.

KEN SALAZAR: We will keep our boot on their neck until the job gets done. And, as I said yesterday, we will make sure that all of their responsibilities are fulfilled to the people of the Gulf Coast and to the United States government. The accountability here as the investigations unfold will hold them accountable, both civilly and in whatever way is necessary.

JEFFREY BROWN: Salazar insisted federal officials are not just — quote — “standing on the sidelines and letting BP do whatever it wants.”

But Louisiana Governor Bobby Jindal, who has toured the coast by boat, also criticized the federal response. He says the state is tired of waiting for approval to build sand barriers.

GOV. BOBBY JINDAL, R-La.: Every day we do not fight this oil on a barrier island, every day we are not dredging sand means one more day this oil has a chance to come into our ecosystem, into our wetlands that are home to some the nation’s most important fisheries.

JEFFREY BROWN: In fact, the oily sludge has already reached shore along a 150-mile stretch, from Grand Isle, Louisiana, to Dauphin Island Alabama.

Brown pelicans and their nesting areas were among the first victims. Volunteers worked to clean birds and feed them a rehydration solution.

JAY HOLCOMB, International Bird Rescue Research Center: What they do is, they fly over and they plunge in for fish, but they don’t recognize oil as being anything than sea foam or whatever. And she got really heavily oiled. So, they captured her and brought her in, but she was dripping with oil.

JEFFREY BROWN: BP announced today it will spend up to $500 million dollars over 10 years to research the effects of the oil on the marine and shoreline environment.

But the immediate challenge remained, to stop the spill. BP acknowledged it’s siphoned much less of the oil over the weekend than in previous days. A company news release said the mile-deep operation remains a new technology and both its continued operation and its effectiveness in capturing the oil and gas remain uncertain.

At the same time, BP delayed by another day an attempt to plug the blown well by injecting it with cement and mud. It will now be at least Wednesday before the so-called top kill maneuver is tried.

JUDY WOODRUFF: As we heard, one of the places where the spill’s impact is being most directly felt and where anger is building Grand Isle, Louisiana.

“NewsHour” correspondent Tom Bearden has an on-the-ground report on the reaction and the response.

TOM BEARDEN: It finally happened over the weekend, what everybody in Grand Isle feared, oil on the beaches and oil in Barataria Bay, home to the shrimp, crab and fish the town’s economy depends on. Now both the beaches and the fishing grounds are closed.

Deano Bonano, chief of the Homeland Security Department for Jefferson Parish, decided enough was enough. He says, when sheriff’s officers in helicopters first saw the oil coming, they tried to get BP to act.

DEANO BONANO, director, Jefferson Parish, Louisiana, Homeland Security Chief: Last week, we picked up oil about 20 miles off our coast, and we gave BP the lat and long coordinates of it and so, man, go out there and skim it, start attacking it before it gets here. Nothing. Fourteen miles the next day, same thing, nothing — 10 miles, five miles, every day, closer and closer. They took no action.

Two days ago, it started coming on our beaches, still no action. The problem is, is BP is a company run by petroleum engineers, administrators, oil pushers, et cetera. And they’re trying to run an emergency operation with people who aren’t trained for emergency management or emergency response. We quickly realized yesterday that, if we are going to try to save our coast, we have got to take over.

TOM BEARDEN: And take over they did, using a state law that allows local officials to assume control in a crisis.

DEANO BONANO: I informed them yesterday we were commandeering their access, since they had a whole fleet of boats anchored behind an island doing nothing because they said they couldn’t communicate with them, they were having a problem getting fuel, ice. The bottom line is, within an hour, our fire and police men had it organized and had those boats on the move and were attacking the oil coming onshore.

TOM BEARDEN: So, yesterday, there were 50 fishing boats offshore trailing booms to corral surface oil, soak it up and take it back to shore.

DEANO BONANO: We spent the entire day cleaning the inside of the bay. And it’s still not done. Today, the oil coming into the bay is a lot lighter than it was yesterday. Yesterday, it was really heavy oil. So, we were able to catch up a little bit today, but, essentially, the damage is done.

TOM BEARDEN: Bonano says repeated appeals to federal officials have gone unanswered.

DEANO BONANO: Deafening silence. Our governor is screaming at the top of his lungs for the federal government to act, and they are not acting.

TOM BEARDEN: Are you surprised that they’re not acting?

DEANO BONANO: Yes, we’re very surprised. It’s almost as if they are more on BP’s side than they are our side. How do you let the company who caused the damages be in charge of cleaning up and responding to that damage? It is like putting the chicken in charge of the — or the fox in charge of the henhouse.

Our goal is to convince the federal government, look, you need to take this out of BP’s hands. This is an emergency response issue. It should be in the hands of emergency managers, not a company.

DAVID CAMARDELLE, mayor of Grand Isle, Louisiana: Don’t look good, huh?

TOM BEARDEN: Grand Isle Mayor David Camardelle says the town’s entire economic future is at risk. He says there ought to be 400 fishing boats out there harvesting shrimp, not towing booms.

DAVID CAMARDELLE: I’m scared, how much taxes I’m going to lose for the city hall, how much the residents, the fisherman, knowing that my businessmen people can’t make a nickel, and knowing that my shrimpers can’t make a nickel. Nobody is making money on this island. And this is the prime time of our season, the tourist season, shrimp season. This is it.

The shrimpers done spent all their money to get their shrimp boats ready. You make it four months, five months out of the year, no matter if you are a shrimper, no matter if you are a businessperson here. You have really got to put it around the clock 24 hours.

TOM BEARDEN: His friend Terry Vegas has been shrimping for 42 years.

TERRY VEGAS, shrimp boat owner: We are just getting in the prime time of our season. Everybody spent most of their money getting the boats ready, the drydock or nets or ropes, everything you can imagine. And none of that is cheap. None of that is cheap. I spend $12,000 a year just on drydock. And it’s terrible. It’s terrible.

When you ain’t got — when you can’t go out and get no shrimp, bills will just pile up. Never would dream it would end like this, never in a hundred years. I’m 60 years old, and I don’t think I’m going to be able to live long enough to go back in it, I don’t think. If you go like the Alaskan oil spill, 20 years later, they are still not fishing.

TOM BEARDEN: And it’s not just about the money. For sportsmen like Paul Rougeau, it is a way of life. He runs a swimming pool business for a living, but his passion is catching fish. He spent the whole weekend fishing in the deepwater areas that are still open.

PAUL ROUGEAU, recreational fisherman: There is a potential threat that I will never be able to do this again if my life. I understand that. So — but that’s why we have been going every weekend and tearing it up.

TOM BEARDEN: He’s been all up and down the coast and is very skeptical of those booms that are supposed to protect the shore.

PAUL ROUGEAU: It’s not doing anything.

TOM BEARDEN: Why do you say that?

PAUL ROUGEAU: Because, on the backside of the booms, there’s — still looks like you spilled gasoline in the water.

TOM BEARDEN: These docks are normally packed with charter fishing boats. Captain Zuti Auenson says, ordinarily, he would be booked seven days a week this time of year by clients from all over the world.

CAPTAIN ZUTI AUENSON, charter boat owner: People have been — from a ways have been calling for quite a while, wondering what is going on. And we really don’t know what to tell them, because, one day, you can fish. The next day, you can’t fish. One day — they started opening the shrimp season. They opened it one day. They closed it the next day, so nobody knew what was going on. I have canceled my next week’s charters, just to start. And that’s just a start.

TOM BEARDEN: You think the whole season is ruined?

CAPTAIN ZUTI AUENSON: I think, if it keep on doing the way it’s going, yes, it’s going to be ruined.

TOM BEARDEN: All of this ripples through the town’s economy, affecting all of the 1,500 people who live here. With the beaches closed indefinitely, and the fishing grounds shut down, many rental properties are vacant. And nearly everyone we talked to complained about a lack of urgency.

They pointed to the absorbent boom material stacked up near the marina and guarded by the Louisiana National Guard. Mayor Camardelle says BP trained a lot of local fisherman on how to deploy it, but then never hired any of them to actually do the job. And now he’s afraid it may be too late.