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Reporter’s Notebook: The BP Oil Spill, One Year Later

As the first anniversary of the British Petroleum oil well blowout approaches, Gulf Coast residents are taking stock of what has happened to them and contemplating what the future might hold. NewsHour Correspondent Tom Bearden was on the scene during the frantic attempts to cap the well and the grueling cleanup that followed.

I spent the better part of five months in Louisiana, Mississippi and Alabama covering the BP oil disaster. Last week, we returned to the region to find out how the people — and the economy — are faring on the first anniversary of the explosion at the Macondo well.

One of my enduring memories of the early days after the spill was a boat trip out into the oil slick.

The sea was black with angry-looking red patches that looked like floating pancakes. The air was so foul that several people had difficulty breathing. The white hulls of the boats were soon stained as scientists lowered an underwater camera to investigate how deep the oil went into the water column.

A host of scientists working for universities and government agencies have been studying the Gulf almost continuously ever since the blowout. Most say the oil is pretty much gone now — consumed by bacteria, dispersed by a chemical called Corexit, or burned or skimmed from the surface.

But more than a few fishermen told us a lot of oil is still out in the marshes — it’s just on the bottom.

We visited Acy Cooper, who we interviewed last year. He and his sons have spent the past several weeks getting their boats and tackle ready for the start of the 2011 shrimping season. He said oil is easy to stir up: He just runs his boat back and forth, and oil rises to the surface. He’s afraid about what effect that residual oil will have on future generations of shrimp.

A year ago, pictures of oil-soaked, dying pelicans were on television screens and in newspapers all over the world. Thousands of birds and other animals died. A year later, experts such as Ralph Portier, an environmental science professor at Louisiana State University, told us the bird populations appear to be recovering. But the sea turtle population, particularly the Kemp’s Ridley variety, seems to have taken a serious hit.

The oil also caused the government to shut down the fishing grounds that thousands of families depend on to make their living catching fish and shrimp, harvesting oysters and hosting tourists.

“We seem to have good indications that the fisheries are okay,” Portier said, and most of the impacted marshlands seem to be recovering. He said the oil affected a fairly small percentage of the coastal marshes but that the jury is still out on the barrier islands that were repeatedly subjected to oil washing ashore. The oil can kill the grasses, whose roots hold the soil together, and accelerate coastal erosion.

Last year, Dave Cvitanovich took us on a tour of Barataria Bay, which is on the western side of the Mississippi River delta. Cvitanovich has spent most of his life in these waters. Last week, he took us out again. He was visibly upset by what he saw. He said the oil is “like a flesh-eating virus. This is dying.”

He pointed out places where the shoreline has receded 100 feet or more, as evidenced by his GPS display. The device’s database, which is not very old, showed land where we were cruising in open water.

National Wildlife Federation Outreach Coordinator Maura Wood said Louisiana can’t afford to lose any more wetlands. “An important thing that Congress could do would be to dedicate the penalties that BP will pay as a result of this spill to reinvest those penalties in restoring the Gulf and in restoring coastal Louisiana,” Wood said. “Those penalties would go a long way toward helping to restore this area, and those people depend on this environment for their economic well being.”

The war of words that started last April is still going. Last year, Plaquemines Parish President Billy Nungesser accused the government and BP of having no sense of urgency and of not doing enough to keep the oil out of the marshes. Once the oil came ashore, he accused authorities of not moving fast enough to deploy protective booms. Nungesser wanted to put jack-up boats (vessels that can lower pilings onto the bottom and hoist themselves out of the water) into the marshes to serve as staging platforms for workers and materiel such as booms. He said the platforms would allow workers to stay in the work zone rather than having to motor long distances back to the docks each day.

Nungesser said BP and the Coast Guard initially rejected the idea, and he said they consented only after he appealed to President Obama. Those boats are gone now, but Nungesser is still angry. In an interview with the NewsHour, Nungesser said, “There was way more money wasted covering up, lying and misleading the public than was actually spent on cleaning up the oil.”

Rear Adm. Paul Zukunft was the federal on-scene coordinator in the Gulf between May 2010 and February 2011. He rejected Nungesser’s accusation. “I’m not going to get into character assassinations,” Zukunft said. “It is unfortunate. We had over 3,000 people working out of responder village in Plaquemines Parish. We brought in over 47,000 responders.”

After the spill, oil washed onto the beaches at Gulf Shores, Ala. The town was virtually deserted in what should have been the height of the tourist season. Some restaurants were forced out of business. Rows of high-rise condominium buildings sat empty. Despite the fact the town brought in specially designed equipment to scoop tarballs off the sand each night, people stayed away.

That is not the case now. Even though it was foggy and a little chilly last week, the tourists were back in force. Mayor Robert Craft said, “Obviously the oil is not coming ashore anymore, and we’re looking forward to a good season.”

Perhaps the hottest topic of conversation is the ongoing damage-claims process. BP agreed to set aside $20 billion to compensate businesses and individuals. Attorney Kenneth Feinberg, who managed claims by the victims of the Sept. 11 attacks, was selected to disburse the funds independently of both BP and the government. Feinberg staged a series of public meetings to explain the process and was subjected to harsh and skeptical questions from local residents.

Criticism of the process has increased over the intervening months. “You battle them, and you battle them,” Pete Blalock, a seafood distributor, told us. “You do the process like they say to do, use their formula. I used accountants from day one, and I said take it where the numbers take it whatever the formula. They send you back 50 cents, 25 cents on the dollar. And they won’t tell you why.”

Several people told us they found the process arbitrary and unfair and believed it was designed to wear claimants down so they will accept a final settlement in exchange for giving up the right to sue BP in the future.

Feinberg rejects that argument. “I think there is plenty of room to improve the program, but this notion that there is a perception that the program is merely designed to prevent people from suing or really is designed by BP to hush them up or whatever is absolutely, uncategorically not true,” he said. “I wouldn’t be doing it if that was the case.”

Other people we spoke with were satisfied with the money they had received for their claims. One large developer received millions but declined to discuss any dollar amounts. He said BP had told them not to talk to the press.

On this first anniversary of the disaster, some parts of the region’s economy seem to be looking up. Others such as fishing and seafood processing are still in the doldrums. And many said they have a nagging sense of unease about the long-term environmental and health consequences of America’s worst off-shore oil disaster.

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