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Many Gulf Coast Residents Still Frustrated by Handling of BP Oil Spill

April 26, 2011 at 6:09 PM EST
A year after the Deepwater Horizon explosion touched off a massive oil leak that polluted the Gulf Coast, many residents remain angry and frustrated at the slow response of BP and the U.S. government. Tom Bearden reports from the Gulf on residents' attitudes a year after the disaster began.
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MARGARET WARNER: It’s been a year since the Deepwater Horizon oil rig exploded. But for some Gulf Coast residents, their anger at BP and the government has hardly subsided.

NewsHour correspondent Tom Bearden returned to the Gulf Coast and filed this report.

DAVE CVITANOVICH, oysterman: Look here.

TOM BEARDEN: Dave Cvitanovich was showing us examples of erosion when he came across a small flotilla of boats pulled up against the bank over one of the oyster beds he leases on Barataria Bay south of New Orleans.

They were BP contractors doing marsh remediation but they hadn’t warned him they were coming. Cvitanovich’s long-running frustration with BP and the Coast Guard boiled over.

DAVE CVITANOVICH: Hey. I’m the oyster lease owner here. I want to know what’s going on. No one called me to let me know what’s going on.

No, no, I’m…

MAN: I will talk to you.

DAVE CVITANOVICH: No, I’m staying right here, because this is my lease.

TOM BEARDEN: When Cvitanovich refused to move away another boat approached, carrying a young man who appeared to be a member of the U.S. Coast Guard.

DAVE CVITANOVICH: What’s up?

MAN: Good afternoon.

DAVE CVITANOVICH: How you doing?

MAN: I’m all right. How are you?

DAVE CVITANOVICH: I don’t know. Tell me.

MAN: I have been requested by the site workers to ask you to maintain a 150-meters distance from the operation.

DAVE CVITANOVICH: Hold on a second, sir. I own all these oyster leases here. I have got 1,150 acres all up in here. I have got no cooperation from you all whatsoever.

TOM BEARDEN: Cvitanovich says he was specifically promised he’d have advance notice when BP would come into his area.

DAVE CVITANOVICH: And this is bull. I can’t even go to see my leases? Stay away. The coward over there in that other boat, you know. Get away from here. Get away from here.

Do I tell you to get away from your driveway in your house? Do I stop this man from fishing?

TOM BEARDEN: We’re told that what happened that day in Barataria Bay wasn’t at all uncommon. People say both the government and BP made a lot of promises — promises they didn’t keep.

No one has been more outspoken than the president of Plaquemines Parish, Billy Nungesser. Ever since the well blew out, he has loudly criticized the Coast Guard and BP, saying they never showed any sense of urgency during the emergency. And he now charges that they tried to cover up how badly the wetlands were damaged.

BILLY NUNGESSER, Plaquemines Parish, La.: Instead of denying, instead of covering up, instead of lying, they could have saved hundreds of millions of dollars and done a better job.

TOM BEARDEN: Nungesser also accused BP and the Coast Guard of deliberately obstructing local efforts to mitigate the damage.

BILLY NUNGESSER: They stood in our way, stopped us from rescuing animals. They stopped us by shutting down all the vessels to go in and check for life jackets and fire extinguishers. They didn’t want us to pick up the oil.

And even at this late date the sense of urgency is not there. You know, in areas that have been heavily impacted, like Bay Jimmy, the oil’s picked up in a thunderstorm and slammed into the marsh. So about 80 feet of the — the land is destroyed.

TOM BEARDEN: Rear Adm. Paul Zukunft rejects Nungesser’s charges. He was the federal on-scene coordinator in the Gulf between last May and February 2011.

REAR ADM. PAUL ZUKUNFT, U.S. Coast Guard: I will not get into character assassinations, which is unfortunate. You know, we — we had over 3,000 people working out of responder village in Plaquemines Parish. We brought in over 47,000 responders.

And I went down there repeatedly to talk to the crews doing the work, many of these people working 20 hours a day in heat indexes of over 115 degrees. And so, when we make that sense of urgency, it is really speaking to those workers that are out there, putting their health at risk to protect that environment and mitigate the impact of this oil spill.

TOM BEARDEN: Mike Utsler is BP’s CEO for Gulf restoration.

Billy Nungesser, president of Plaquemines Parish, says he still, in his view, sees a lack of urgency on the Coast Guard and BP’s part.

MIKE UTSLER, BP Gulf Coast Restoration Organization: Well I can only speak on behalf of this response for the past 12 months that I have been responsible and a part of its efforts.

And that is to say that, you know, we expended every aspect of human and mechanical and technological capabilities. We developed new technologies, new methodologies and approaches. And we have continuously improved as we have gone through this response on the basis of those learnings.

TOM BEARDEN: Acy Cooper and his sons are getting their boats ready for the upcoming shrimping season. Cooper is the vice president of the Louisiana Shrimp Association. He says he’s had constant battles with federal authorities and BP contractors and it’s clear to him who really runs the show.

ACY COOPER, Louisiana Shrimp Association: The federal government is not in charge. BP is charge of everything. And the Coast Guard, it just seems like to me they have them in their back pocket. And whatever they want to do, the Coast Guard’s behind them. And they should be behind us and what we say and what we want to do. You try to go to an area and they want to run you off. This is America. You know, we are free. And this is our waters and our country, not BP’s.

TOM BEARDEN: Robert Craft, the mayor of Gulf Shores, Ala., also believes the Coast Guard has been overshadowed by BP. The city’s white beaches turned brown before the well was finally capped and the tourist industry all but shut down for several months.

ROBERT CRAFT, mayor of Gulf Shores, Ala.: I think they’re desperately over their head, in that they’re dealing with one of the best business minds and companies in any industry in the world.

And they’re — the — the strategy of BP has been, I think, in my opinion, twofold: Mitigate their losses and protect their brand, and — and protect their brand and their reputation. And they’re really good at it. And it’s hard for me to understand how the Coast Guard, who has — very good at certain things, but not really known for their business acumen, that are trying to determine and force BP to do what they should do. That is a David-and-Goliath deal, and I — David’s not going to win this time.

TOM BEARDEN: Adm. Zukunft, whose two daughters live in Gulf Shores, says he understands the frustration but insists that the Coast Guard was and is in charge.

REAR ADM. PAUL ZUKUNFT: The federal government directs the responsible party, BP, to carry out certain response actions.

BP takes that direction and they fund it. They provide the resources that does that cleanup. And to date, BP has expended over $16 billion of this response. Now if BP doesn’t respond, I have the means by which to use our oil spill liability trust fund and then take on that piece of the operation and then bill BP for those services.

WOMAN: BP has taken full responsibility for the cleanup in the Gulf and that includes keeping you informed.

TOM BEARDEN: For its part, BP has been running national ads for months to convince people it’s been doing the right thing. They have not convinced Nungesser.

BILLY NUNGESSER: I don’t know how it’s selling around the country, but it outrages people that they spend that kind of money with full-page ads and TV commercials, instead of putting in there: Look, here is where you can go to get checked out if you think you are sick. Here is what we’re doing to clean up the marsh.

The information — they spending so much money on public relations, instead of informing the public across coastal Louisiana that was affected. It’s absurd.

MIKE UTSLER: It’s as important as a tool to tell the story. Not only were we saying we were going to do this, but here was proof in the actions and the efforts of more than 48,000 people and 6,500 vessels and 120 aircraft that were in action to respond to this event.

TOM BEARDEN: Utsler believes most local residents will eventually come around.

MIKE UTSLER: It will be through our actions, though, that ultimately, people will come to have confidence that this company said it would do it and this response said it would do these things; it did those things.

TOM BEARDEN: But the state of Louisiana wants more than the $1 billion that BP has just committed as an initial payment for coastal restoration. It wants a much larger amount now, instead of waiting for the exact amount of damages to be determined by the federal natural resource damage assessment, a complex process that could take years.