Louisiana Braces As Oil Spill Gushes Closer To Shore
MICHEL MARTIN, host:
I'm Michel Martin and this is TELL ME MORE from NPR News.
We're going to spend some time in New Orleans and close by this morning. In a few minutes we'll visit with one of the writers on the new HBO television series "Treme." It's trying very hard to present an authentic New Orleans. We'll find out if they're succeeding. That's coming up.
But, first, we'll try to find out about that massive oil spill that is causing huge anxiety along the Gulf Coast. The April 20th explosion at an oil rig in the Gulf of Mexico is causing some 210,000 gallons of crude to pour each day into the ocean.
We're joined now by New Orleans Times-Picayune reporter and columnist Bob Marshall for an update. Welcome, thank you so much for joining us.
Mr. BOB MARSHALL (Reporter, New Orleans Times-Picayune): My pleasure.
MARTIN: Now, your recent column on the spill began with a one-word paragraph: Terrified. You go on to say it was the most common expression across the southeast Louisiana fishing community this week as the river of oil from a blown out rig on the Gulf of Mexico began flowing onto the coast in what officials say could be a two to three month of flood of toxic chemicals and sticky tars. Could you tell us a little bit more about exactly what the fishermen and people in the rest of the region are terrified about?
Mr. MARSHALL: Well, you know, as the column goes on to talk about, they know that this is the base of the whole industry here and the culture in this region is the estuary, the marsh in southeast Louisiana, the delta, the Mississippi River. It's the largest, most productive estuary in the lower 48, one of the most productive in the world.
And the base of that, that whole engine that drives this incredible production is the grass and water and mud interface. And as this oil comes ashore, it will follow that engine, clog it up, stop it and it will take many, many months, if not, years - the scientists tell us - to clean it up.
So, you're looking at an entire, you know, way of life that could be frozen, paralyzed for months, if not years, as we try to get this jump-started and cleaned up.
MARTIN: We're still using the term could be. Is there any sense of just how likely it is that the spill will cause this kind of damage? I guess what I'm asking is, is there any hope that the impact can be minimized at this point? Or is that all over now?
Mr. MARSHALL: Well, miracles do happen. But the word spill is not accurate here. This is it's not a tanker that has breached or a ship that's turned over. It's not one rig that's been capped and released a million gallons, it really is a river. It's flowing. If it were just a spill, there'd be a lot of optimism. There are a lot of ways to treat this and the impact could be minimized.
But, you know, tomorrow, the wind could shift. Right now it seems to be flowing to the northeast, it might miss most of the southeast Louisiana coast for the next few days. But when the wind shifts around to the southwest, you know, it'll come back this way. Many of the fishermen and people I talked to said this is worse than Katrina. You know, they know how to recover from hurricanes, that's a natural event that occurs every now and then here, but how do you recover from something that you don't know has an end?
MARTIN: Can you give us a sense, when you said this was one of the productive fishing areas in the countries, if not the world, can you just give us a sense of what that means?
Mr. MARSHALL: Well, the Louisiana coast, the Mississippi Delta, the estuaries, especially in southeast Louisiana, we produce 50 percent of the nation's wild shrimp crop, 35 percent of the blue claw crabs come from here. Something like 40 percent of all the oysters you consume come from Louisiana. Seventy percent of all the migratory waterfowl that come down the U.S. either winter here or stop here on their way out to other places.
A hundred and ten species of neo-tropicals use this either to nest or to rest. It really is the most productive fish and wildlife habitat in the U.S. People don't think of it that way, they don't know much about it. And we've already been losing it for the last 70 years, 2,000 square miles in 70 years have turned into the Gulf of Mexico largely from the impacts of the offshore and inshore oil industry, as well as levees on the rivers and subsiding. So this is a national resource. It's not just a Louisiana resource. It doesn't just impact New Orleans.
MARTIN: Well, thanks for putting that into perspective for us. And speaking of a national resource, President Obama traveled to Venice, Louisiana this weekend, where he talked about this. I'm just going to play a short clip of a little bit of what he had to say and I'll get your reaction. Here it is.
(Soundbite of speech)
President BARACK OBAMA: We will spare no resource to clean up whatever damage is caused. And while there will be time to fully investigate what happened on that rig and hold responsible parties accountable, our focus now is on a fully coordinated, relentless response effort to stop the leak and prevent more damage to the Gulf.
MARTIN: Now, I understand that, you know, your reporting efforts have been, you know, focused on trying to assess what's going on, but do you have any sense of how people are reacting to the, A, the federal government's response so far and President Obama's visit in specific?
Mr. MARSHALL: There isn't a lot of trust in this area to federal government responses based on what happened after Katrina. Many people still have not been made whole. They're still waiting for the government, for the responsible parties who flooded their homes and ruined their lives to compensate them, to mitigate that damage.
So, they're hopeful and they think this administration will, if for no other reason than the terrible image the last administration was hung with, will do better. But they're keeping their fingers crossed. Now on the same token, there's this odd new economy that's coming up, the same thing that happened in Alaska.
Many of the fishermen who were put out of work here are being instantly hired by the oil cleanup industry, which is being directed I think by BP and the federal government through subcontractors. And some of these people will tell me, some of the boat captains are getting paid 575 a day plus $40 an hour. So, in many cases, they're actually making more money than they would've been fishing.
MARTIN: You mean $575 a day?
Mr. MARSHALL: Yes.
Mr. MARSHALL: Plus $40 an hour. So, this happened in Prince William Sound in Alaska. It turned out that, you know, the economy was changed, well, for good. They have had lingering and long-term damage to their fisheries, but many of the people who want to fish can't find workers 'cause they're making too much money still doing cleanup from the Exxon Valdez. So, that's taking place.
But this is more than just people fishing, this habitat is really at the tip of the pyramid for the whole culture down here. The restaurants in New Orleans, the people who come here to eat food which is based largely on local seafood.
MARTIN: So, it's true that some people can maybe switch over from being, you know, working in the fishing industry to working in the environmental impact industry, but that doesn't change the fact that the whole culture is affected by this. I take your point.
But you were talking about compensation, this whole question of compensation. This morning, BP CEO Tony Hayward was interviewed on one of our programs, NPR's MORNING EDITION. I just want to play a short clip of what he had to say there and get your reaction. Here it is.
Mr. TONY HAYWARD (CEO, BP Global): We will absolutely be paying for the cleanup operation. There is no doubt about that. That's our responsibility, we accept it fully.
MARTIN: You think that's true, Bob Marshall?
Mr. MARSHALL: I heard that interview this morning and then I read AP report that on "The Today Show," he kind of dodged responsibility. But, you know, I think from the beginning theyve been saying that. There's been no attempt to shuffle responsibility. I think they blame the subcontractors who were operating the rig and now there's a federal investigation that's been reported into Halliburton, which was responsible for placing the blowout preventer.
But, you know, I know I think they're on the record. Now, it's up to our elected officials and for people down here to stay on top of them. Everyone knows what happened in Alaska with the Exxon Valdez. Some of those claims were litigated for 20 years and still haven't been settled.
MARTIN: Bob Marshall of the New Orleans Times-Picayune. He was kind enough to join us from his home office in New Orleans. Bob Marshall, thank you so much for speaking with us.
Mr. MARSHALL: My pleasure.