Everyone gathered for the town hall meeting had been repeatedly instructed to show civility to the gentlemen from BP and the federal government. These fine folks had made time in their busy schedules to come to a school gymnasium on a Tuesday night in Plaquemines Parish, La., one of many coastal communities where brown poison was slithering through the marshes, part of what has come to be described as the largest environmental disaster in U.S. history.
“Speak to others the way you would want to be spoken to,” the chair of the meeting pleaded one last time before opening the floor for questions.
And for a while the crowd, mostly made up of fishing families, showed remarkable restraint. They listened patiently to Larry Thomas, a genial BP public relations flack, as he told them that he was committed to “doing better” to process their claims for lost revenue — then passed all the details off to a markedly less friendly subcontractor. They heard out the suit from the Environmental Protection Agency as he informed them that, contrary to what they had read about the lack of testing and the product being banned in Britain, the chemical dispersant being sprayed on the oil was really perfectly safe.
But patience started running out by the third time Ed Stanton, a Coast Guard captain, took to the podium to reassure them that “the Coast Guard intends to make sure that BP cleans it up.”
“Put it in writing!” someone shouted out. By now the air conditioning had shut itself off and the coolers of Budweiser were running low. A shrimper named Matt O’Brien approached the mic. “We don’t need to hear this anymore,” he declared, hands on hips. It didn’t matter what assurances they were offered because, he explained, “we just don’t trust you guys!” And with that, such a loud cheer rose up from the bleachers you’d have thought the Oilers (the school’s unfortunate name for its sports teams) had scored a touchdown.
The showdown was cathartic, if nothing else. For weeks residents had been subjected to a barrage of pep talks and extravagant promises coming from Washington, Houston and London. Every time they turned on their TVs, there was the BP boss, Tony Hayward, offering his solemn word that he would “make it right.” Or else it was President Obama expressing his absolute confidence that his administration would “leave the Gulf Coast in better shape than it was before,” that he was “making sure” it “comes back even stronger than it was before this crisis.”
It all sounded great. But for people whose livelihoods put them in intimate contact with the delicate chemistry of the wetlands, it also sounded absurd. Once the oil coats the base of the marsh grass, as it had already done just a few miles away, no miracle machine or chemical concoction could safely get it out. You can skim oil off the surface of open water, and you can rake it off a sandy beach, but an oiled marsh just sits there, slowly dying. The larvae of countless species for which the marsh is a spawning ground — shrimp, crab, oysters and fin fish — will be poisoned.
It was already happening. Earlier that day, I traveled through nearby marshes in a shallow-water boat. Fish were jumping in waters encircled by white boom, the strips of thick cotton and mesh BP is using to soak up the oil. The circle of fouled material seemed to be tightening around the fish like a noose. Nearby, a red-winged blackbird perched atop a seven-foot blade of oil-contaminated marsh grass. Death was creeping up the cane; the small bird may as well have been standing on a lighted stick of dynamite.
And then there is the grass itself, or the Roseau cane, as the tall, sharp blades are called. If oil seeps deeply enough into the marsh, it will not only kill the grass above ground but also the roots. Those roots are what hold the marsh together, keeping bright-green land from collapsing into the Mississippi River Delta and the Gulf of Mexico. So not only do places like Plaquemines Parish stand to lose their fisheries, but also much of the physical barrier that lessens the intensity of fierce storms like Hurricane Katrina. Which could mean losing everything.
How long will it take for an ecosystem this ravaged to be “restored and made whole,” as Obama’s interior secretary pledged it would be? It’s not at all clear that such a thing is even possible, at least not in a time frame we can easily wrap our heads around. The Alaskan fisheries have yet to recover fully from the 1989 Exxon Valdez spill, and some species of fish never returned. Government scientists estimate that as much as a Valdez-worth of oil may be entering the Gulf Coast waters every four days. An even worse prognosis emerges from the 1991 Gulf War spill, when an estimated 11 million barrels of oil were dumped into the Persian Gulf — the largest spill ever. It’s not a perfect comparison, since so little cleanup was done, but according to a study conducted 12 years after the disaster in the Persian Gulf, nearly 90 percent of the impacted muddy salt marshes and mangroves were still profoundly damaged.
We do know this: far from being “made whole,” the Gulf Coast, more than likely, will be diminished. Its rich waters and crowded skies will be less alive than they are today. The physical space many communities occupy on the map will also shrink, thanks to erosion. And the coast’s legendary culture will contract and wither. The fishing families up and down the coast do not just gather food, after all. They hold up an intricate network that includes family tradition, cuisine, music, art and endangered languages — much like the roots of grass holding up the land in the marsh. Without fishing, these unique cultures lose their root system, the very ground on which they stand. (BP, for its part, is well aware of the limits of recovery. The company’s “Gulf of Mexico Regional Oil Spill Response Plan” specifically instructs officials not to make “promises that property, ecology, or anything else will be restored to normal.” Which is no doubt why its officials consistently favor folksy terms like “make it right.”)
If Katrina pulled back the curtain on racism, the BP disaster pulls back the curtain on something far more hidden: how little control even the most ingenious among us have over the awesome, intricately interconnected natural forces with which we so casually meddle. BP cannot plug the hole in the Earth that it made. Obama cannot order brown pelicans not to go extinct (no matter whose ass he kicks). No amount of money — not BP’s recently pledged $20 billion, not $100 billion — can replace a culture that has lost its roots. And while our politicians and corporate leaders have yet to come to terms with these humbling truths, the people whose air, water and livelihoods have been contaminated are losing their illusions fast.
“Everything is dying,” a woman said as the town hall meeting was coming to a close. “How can you honestly tell us that our gulf is resilient and will bounce back? Because not one of you up here has a hint as to what is going to happen to our gulf. You sit up here with a straight face and act like you know, when you don’t know.”
This Gulf Coast crisis is about many things — corruption, deregulation, the addiction to fossil fuels. But underneath it all, it’s about this: our culture’s dangerous claim to have such complete understanding and command over nature that we can radically manipulate and re-engineer it with minimal risk to the natural systems that sustain us. As the BP disaster has revealed, nature is never as predictable as the most sophisticated mathematical and geological models imagine. During recent Congressional testimony, Hayward said, “The best minds and the deepest expertise are being brought to bear” on the crisis, and that “with the possible exception of the space program in the 1960s, it is difficult to imagine the gathering of a larger, more technically proficient team in one place in peacetime.” And yet, in the face of what geologist Jill Schneiderman has described as “Pandora’s well,” they are like the men at the front of that gymnasium: they act like they know, but they don’t know.