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Five years on, what do we know about BP oil spill damage?

How is the Gulf Coast coping with the effects of the massive 2010 BP oil spill five years later? Judy Woodruff talks to John Young, president of Louisiana’s Jefferson Parish, and Mark Schleifstein of Nola.com and The Times-Picayune about the environmental and economic impacts and what’s left to be done.

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  • JUDY WOODRUFF:

    There are plenty of different opinions and findings about how well or poorly the Gulf Coast’s waters, wildlife, businesses and people have recovered.

    We explore that now with two people from the region. Mark Schleifstein, he’s the environment reporter at The Times-Picayune in New Orleans. And John Young, he’s president of Jefferson Parish, Louisiana. It’s a coastal district near the epicenter of the 2010 spill.

    And we welcome you both to the program.

    John Young, to you first. How are people in your area doing five years after?

  • JOHN YOUNG, President of Jefferson Parish, Louisiana:

    Well, Judy, we have a resilient population. We have been through Hurricane Katrina, Rita, Gustav, Ike, the BP oil disaster, Tropical Storm Lee and Hurricane Isaac in the last 10 years.

    So, people have come back. There’s still a lot of damage to assess. We’re still getting tar mats on the beach in Grand Isle and East Grand Terre. And we’re still dealing with that. But people are going about their daily lives and putting it behind us.

    But there’s still a lot to be done. We still have to hold BP accountable and there’s still some litigation that has to occur and damages that have to be paid.

  • JUDY WOODRUFF:

    How would you say people’s lives have changed?

  • JOHN YOUNG:

    Well, certain people’s lives have gone on, but shrimpers and oystermen, they are still suffering. The seafood is plentiful, but it’s not as predictable as to where they catch it. They have to move to catch it.

    Some restaurants that were on Grand Isle, which is part of Jefferson Parish, have gone out of business. The island is back. But, again, we still have to look at the environmental impact. We haven’t seen one cent of clean water fines for the RESTORE Act. That’s the money that we’re going to use to protect and restore our coast.

    So people are moving on with their lives, but, again, the last chapter hasn’t been written and the jury is still out as to what the ultimate cost is going to be in terms of not only economic losses, but also in environmental damage.

  • JUDY WOODRUFF:

    Well, when it comes to the environmental impact, Mark Schleifstein, what do you see? That’s what you focus on. What has been the main effect on the ecology of that area?

  • MARK SCHLEIFSTEIN, The Times-Picayune:

    Well, there was some obvious damage that occurred in the early days of the spill.

    You could see the oil just about everywhere along the Louisiana coastline. And it showed up on beaches along parts of Alabama, Mississippi, and Florida. Today, a lot of that is not seen from day to day, unless you see a bit of significant storm that ends up uncovering some of this oil that is still in the near shore right off the beaches under the sediment.

    And when that happens, you get a situation like we had about a month ago, when you had 25,000 pounds of this material that ended up on the beach and you had to clean it up. The problem is trying to figure out, what does all this mean? And a lot of the efforts that have been made public all really have to do with the criminal court — the civil court case and the fines. And that basically is, how much damage did BP do that you could measure over a certain number of years?

    And you try to come up with a dollar amount for that and then come up with a plan for restoring the damage that was caused. But in addition to that, what the scientists are trying do is to figure out what are the long-term effects? We know that there are some significant effects that we have seen in animals like the bottle-nosed dolphins that live in Barataria Bay, but getting the smoking gun saying specifically that BP is the cause of that, of the deaths of those dolphins, more than a thousand over several years, is a bit more difficult.

  • JUDY WOODRUFF:

    Mark Schleifstein, just quickly staying with you, you mentioned the dolphins. What other sea life has — has it been proven has been affected and damaged by this?

  • MARK SCHLEIFSTEIN:

    Well, again, that’s the problem is proving beyond a doubt that the oil spill is the result of some of these things.

    What we have seen are indications that some of the nasty chemicals, the polychlorinated aromatic carbons, have shown up far away from the Gulf of Mexico, even as far as falcons in Rhode Island. But what it is doing to those birds, for instance, it is hard to tell. This is a longer-term process.

    Another key issue is, a lot of this oil occurred right in an area where you had the bluefin tuna laying eggs each year at literally the same time as the oil spill occurred. What the long-term effects of that might be, again, is something it’s going to take years to find out.

  • JUDY WOODRUFF:

    John Young, president of Jefferson Parish, is the money that BP has spent, is it visibly making a difference, whether it’s on the environmental impact, from what you can see, on the ability of people to get past this?

  • JOHN YOUNG:

    Well, Judy, for one thing, some people have been paid that were far removed from the spill, and some people, such as a shrimp processor down in Grand Isle, still hasn’t been paid, so still has claims pending.

    Cat Island is a good example. It was a lush rookery for birds and waterfowl. And now it’s a desolate barrier island that’s washing away. So, BP has spent a lot of money and there has been a lot of money in cleanup, but there’s still a lot of unaccounted-for oil that is probably on the seabed of the Gulf.

    So, again, as Mark said, I don’t think the last chapter’s been written. It’s too early to say what the full impact is of what happened, and BP is going to have to be held accountable and they’re going to have to continue to pay for the damages they caused and make it right, as they say in their commercials, and make us whole.

    So, again, I don’t think we can write the last chapter on this book yet.

  • JUDY WOODRUFF:

    John Young, and just picking up on that, are people feeling optimistic about the future coming out of this? Or do they still feel that this is something that is going to continue to hurt the New Orleans area, the Gulf area for a long time to come?

  • JOHN YOUNG:

    Oh, no, we’re optimistic. We’re an optimistic people, Judy. And certainly we’re moving forward and we’re going to turn that negative into a positive.

    And, look, we’re producing the best-tasting seafood in the world. We produce 30 to 35 percent of the fisheries that are consumed domestically within the United States of America, and we are still pro oil and gas exploration here in South Louisiana, because we produce 30 to 35 percent of the oil and natural gas consumed domestically in the United States, and we’re for continued oil production.

    We just want to make sure that what happened with the BP and the Deepwater Horizon doesn’t happen again.

  • JUDY WOODRUFF:

    John Young, president of Jefferson Parish, Louisiana, Mark Schleifstein with The New Orleans Times-Picayune, we thank you both.

  • JOHN YOUNG:

    Thank you, Judy.

  • MARK SCHLEIFSTEIN:

    Thank you.

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