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Gulf Residents Wonder How Long BP, Government Will Stick Around for Cleanup

August 5, 2010 at 12:00 AM EST
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The government reports that most of the leaked oil is gone from Gulf waters and shorelines, but there is now growing concern and questions on how long cleanup crews will be around. Tom Bearden reports from Venice, Louisiana.
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JUDY WOODRUFF: Now to the latest on the Gulf oil spill.

BP announced a short time ago that it had finished pumping cement into its blown-out well. The company hopes to kill the well permanently within a few weeks. It seems to be another moment of good news following the capping of the well in July and yesterday’s report from the government that much of the oil in the water has dissipated.

But, along the Gulf Coast, a considerable amount of work and skepticism remains.

NewsHour correspondent Tom Bearden reports from Venice, Louisiana.

TOM BEARDEN: The BP well may be capped, but you wouldn’t know it from all the oil that’s still washing up on this beach. People are still laboriously scooping it up with shovels, still having to endure the August heat and humidity.

MAN: All right.

TOM BEARDEN: It took us nearly an hour to reach these beaches from the cleanup’s main operating base in Venice. And this is just one zone, where a work force of over 2,000 ventures out every day.

You guys have a huge area that you cover.

FRED LEMOND, director, BP Cleanup Operations: We do. We do. I mean, when you look at our 17 divisions, from here at Barataria Bay, and you know, Belle Chasse is on up here just a little bit.

TOM BEARDEN: Right.

Fred Lemond is in charge of BP’s cleanup operations in the Gulf.

FRED LEMOND: We know there’s still oil out there, and our job is just to make sure that we continue to protect the coastline.

TOM BEARDEN: The workers gather each day shortly after dawn for the commute. Some live near headquarters. Others live in floating hotels. The government has announced that three-quarters of all the oil spilled has now disappeared. If so, the remaining one-fourth is still a big problem.

FRED LEMOND: It is, yes. It comes in as — you know, we call them tar balls sometimes, or we call them lily pads that come in on the ocean. They roll up. The tide, as it comes in, can actually come and just deposit them right on the beach. And then the tide rolls out.

So, we address them in that manner. But what also happens is, as the time comes in, the surf comes in each day, it can deposit a little layer of sand over the top of them. So, it’s important not to just look at the surface, but subsurface. As you can see, it goes down and sometimes penetrates the soil just a bit.

TOM BEARDEN: At the command center, Coast Guard and contract workers stare raptly at computer screens, tracking oil and deciding on the best places to send people.

Coast Guard Commander Claudia Gelzer is in charge.

COMMANDER CLAUDIA GELZER, U.S. Coast Guard: We are still finding oil. We’re still looking hard for oil. We have reconnaissance flights that go up, sometimes as many as six times a day. We have boats on the water. We’re looking for oil before it get there. And then we are working on protecting critical, sensitive areas with boom and other mechanical means to bring the oil out of the water.

TOM BEARDEN: Gelzer says it’s a far cry from the early days after the well blew out.

COMMANDER CLAUDIA GELZER: Yes, it’s involved tremendously. It’s grown up from about six people here working off the hood of a car to what you see here, which is a fairly functional, large command center, with logistics support and finance, bringing in tons of equipment, and lots and lots people looking for the oil and trying to get it out of the water.

TOM BEARDEN: But some people here think the government and BP are getting ready to disband all of this and leave before the job is really done.

RYAN LAMBERT, charter boat captain: I’m just worried that, when the cameras are gone and the oil on top is cleaned up, we’re going to be left with it, us and Mother Nature, to heal.

Ryan Lambert is a charter boat captain.

TOM BEARDEN: BP says they are going to be here, they are going to be here for the end.

RYAN LAMBERT: It’s all perception. What is the end? What’s the definition of the end? Until you — you show me what you’re testing, all the parts of the animals and the fish, not just the meat, and find a test for the dispersants, and publish the findings — don’t tell me the EPA and FDA said it’s fine.

I want results. I want to know what they tested. I want to know how they tested it. And I want the results. And then I might have the confidence to say, yes, OK, we’re all right.

TOM BEARDEN: Lambert knows the government thinks most of the surface oil is gone and is no longer a threat. But it’s not the surface he’s worried about.

RYAN LAMBERT: There’s tons of it on the bottom. One of my guides was — was doing some (INAUDIBLE) the day before yesterday. He put his boat in reverse. Oil just comes flying up off the bottom.

So, wherever the oil came in, there’s still tons of it underneath the water. And then that was the whole thing. You put it underwater, where you can’t see it, and let the microbes get it, and we will be out of here. Well, guess that? It’s not going to be that easy.

JIM COWAN, Louisiana State University: This is a forage fish called a thread herring.

TOM BEARDEN: Jim Cowan and his associates at Louisiana State University are among dozens of groups of researchers trying to assess the ecological damage from the BP spill.

WOMAN: Measure total length.

TOM BEARDEN: Earlier this week, they collected samples of fish and shrimp from the affected estuaries and are now in the process of measuring, dissecting and analyzing them.

JIM COWAN: The bottom line is, is that we don’t know how much chronic exposure, how much toxicity, how much is actually buried in the sediments, how long the areas that were heavily impacted by oil will leach those compounds from the — the — from the areas during rainstorms and during tropical storms.

TOM BEARDEN: Cowan also questions the government’s claim that much of the oil is gone.

JIM COWAN: There’s no way, I mean, given that at one point the oil slick at the surface was the size of the state of Kansas. I mean, we know that there were numerous plumes of oil below the sea. There’s no way there’s been time to do a full assessment of what may still be beneath the surface. And I think that’s what most of us are a little bit more worried about now.

TOM BEARDEN: A lot of people we have talked to are very concerned that the country’s attention will shift away and leave Louisiana holding the bag. Do you share that sentiment?

JIM COWAN: Absolutely. My biggest fear is that when — now that the oil — the well is killed, the beaches are clean, people are going to walk away and forget about Louisiana again.

TOM BEARDEN: But Commander Gelzer says there are no plans to start shutting down, at least not yet.

Is there a process where, after you don’t find oil for a while, that you decide you start to scale back?

COMMANDER CLAUDIA GELZER: Well, you know, if there is, they haven’t told me about it. They have me focused on — you know, kind of the — what’s going on in the long-term, nothing has really changed for us. We have no plans to scale things down at this level. And until we see days without oil, we won’t enter into those conversations.

TOM BEARDEN: Cleanup chief Fred Lemond is featured in BP television ads reassuring people that the company would keep working until the cleanup was complete.

FRED LEMOND: I grew up on the Gulf Coast, and I love these waters. As long as there’s oil out there that can make it ashore, I’m going to do everything I can to stop it.

TOM BEARDEN: He says the same thing in person, that they will be here for as long as it takes.

Does anybody have any sense about how long oil might be coming ashore from the spill? Weeks? Months?

FRED LEMOND: It really is hard to say. A lot of folks are looking at that, thinking about it, but it is difficult to determine how long that will be. So, that’s why we come every day. Our mission hasn’t changed. We’re here, doing our recon, because it is difficult to determine.

TOM BEARDEN: Gulf residents say, if BP is really committed to staying until the end, it means their mission will last for many years to come.