La. Parish President Braces For Disaster From Oil Spill

Oil from an explosion at an offshore oil rig is working its way onto the shores of Plaquemines Parish, La. Melissa Block speaks with Parish President Billy Nungesser about the effect the oil spill is having on the sensitive coastal areas of Plaquemines.

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MELISSA BLOCK, host:

Venice is in Plaquemines Parish where Billy Nungesser is parish president. Plaquemines is that long finger of land stretching southeast from New Orleans into the gulf.

Nungesser has been flying over the spill. He has seen those containment booms break apart from the strong tides and winds, and he's seen the oil washing over them towards shore. Nungesser organized that meeting of the fishermen we just heard about and he told me the plan is for the fishermen to lay a second line of booms closer to shore to keep the oil from entering the marshes.

Mr. BILLY NUNGESSER (President, Plaquemines Parish): Well, we just met with them - hundreds of them - lining the highway here in Boothville-Venice. They went through the training to be able to do this and deploy this boom. BP requires the training that they have to go through. So we set up at the Boothville-Venice school and put them through that training, so we could hopefully utilize as many fishermen as possible.

BLOCK: And what are they telling you?

Mr. NUNGESSER: Well, they're worried. You know, they're scared, as we all are, not knowing the magnitude of - or the impact of what this oil could actually do. We know it could be devastating. We just don't know how devastating it could or will be as it comes ashore.

BLOCK: You've said that you, you know, these fishermen know the water there better than anyone. You wanted the Coast Guard to let them help. I imagine they're frustrated. They would have wanted to be out there already, I bet.

Mr. NUNGESSER: Well, you're right. And, you know, a cleanup and a response of this magnitude takes some planning and some time, and we'd like to have been out there two days ago. But as long as we get out there and get the boom in place before it has a chance to really penetrate the marsh, we'll be protecting most of the marsh to be able to make some headway.

BLOCK: Your state is now mobilizing the National Guard. You have the Cabinet secretaries down there from Washington today. But the explosion was 10 days ago now, do you think that the response has been too slow?

Mr. NUNGESSER: Well, I think the federal government, and I can't speak for them, but I think the partnership between BP and the Coast Guard was initially the responders to lead to recovery. And I think as it became more obvious that this was going to be a huge, huge, huge cleanup. And with the oil still flowing, the federal government felt like it needs to get involved, and rightfully so.

BLOCK: Are you satisfied with BP's response? Or do you think they may have downplayed the extent of the disaster?

Mr. NUNGESSER: Well, over the last day and a half, I'm very happy. They have agreed to pay our fishermen and deploy and pay for the boom that we feel we need to put out in the marsh. So I feel that partnership is starting to work. And at this point, I'm satisfied. They're doing all they can.

BLOCK: Before the last day and a half?

Mr. NUNGESSER: We probably should have gotten together earlier and put a team effort together. But, you know, the oil is still not up in the marsh, so we haven't lost any ground in that respect. If we could put our team together and act pretty quickly as it comes into the marsh, I think we'll be successful.

BLOCK: Can you help us understand for a parish like yours that is so dependent on the water, what kind of blow this is for you?

Mr. NUNGESSER: We have a unique situation in Plaquemines Parish. The fishermen and the oil industry coexist. They work together. Many family members, some work in the seafood industry, some work in the oil field. But this is a huge, huge disaster and could devastate another industry, the seafood industry.

BLOCK: And what's your biggest fear right now?

Mr. NUNGESSER: My biggest fear right now is that we're not able to contain it at the edge of the marsh as it comes ashore. And a greater fear than that is that it gets around the tip of Venice and goes up the west side of Louisiana, which is a land mass three or four times greater than the east side, where we're trying to contain.

BLOCK: Mr. Nungesser, thanks for talking with us today.

Mr. NUNGESSER: Thank you so much.

BLOCK: That's Billy Nungesser. He's the president of Plaquemines Parish in Louisiana.

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