Retired Boat Captain Remembers 2005 Oil Spill

Renee Montagne talks to cattle raiser and retired boat captain Phillip Simmons, whose business will be at risk if the leaking oil off the Gulf Coast comes ashore in Plaquemines Parish, La. Simmons spoke with NPR in 2005 when Hurricane Katrina caused a rupture in a local pipeline, spilling more than 100,000 gallons of oil into a marsh in his community.

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RENEE MONTAGNE, host:

This morning, the waters of the Gulf of Mexico are calm, a momentary boon to efforts to contain that growing oil slick. It's been spotted near a group of islands off the coast of Louisiana, not far from Plaquemines Parish.

It's there we reached retired boat captain and cattle farmer Phillip Simmons. We first met him five years ago, just after Katrina hit. The storm had ruptured oil tanks and pipelines, causing numerous small spills and leaving a black, oily, bubbly mess in the Plaquemines marshland. When we called, Phillip Simmons was bracing himself for a new disaster.

Good morning.

Mr. PHILLIP SIMMONS (Retired Boat Captain): Good morning.

MONTAGNE: You know, we last spoke to you here at NPR just after Hurricane Katrina. Our reporter John Burnett encountered you driving along the main road. And we actually - play a little clip about what you told him about the conditions at the time, back in 2005.

(Soundbite of archived recording)

Mr. SIMMONS: Well, it's got oil, but I mean it's a natural disaster, you know? I mean, it's total destruction. I mean, everything. It's not just the oil. You know, nobody has a home from West Point �la Hache south.

MONTAGNE: And West Point �la Hache is a town in Plaquemines Parish. Do you remember that moment? And was it, in fact, anything like you're possibly going to see now?

Mr. SIMMONS: Yes, I remember. And it's probably going to be worse now, because they've got even more. It's such a great big spill and the oil's just filling the Gulf up. If it gets into the marshes, it's going to kill the crabs and oysters and shrimping and fishing.

And a lot of people, that's their livelihood here. And we don't know what the end results are going to be yet. And they're getting some of the fishermen to try to help contain it, so it don't get all over everywhere in these sanctuaries and stuff.

MONTAGNE: You know, I do know there's a lot of wildlife down there. You just mentioned a few things.

Mr. SIMMONS: Yeah. They got a staging area where they're cleaning the birds.

MONTAGNE: Already?

Mr. SIMMONS: Yeah. I know there's some pelicans that's got oil on them and a few other birds. But it's a mess. That's for sure.

MONTAGNE: How many people have even come back there and started rebuilding in this last five years?

Mr. SIMMONS: I would say less than 50 percent come back and there's very few building other than trailers and stuff they brought in, you know. Just mobile homes mostly.

MONTAGNE: So at the moment, though, what? You're just kind of waiting and hoping that you won't be hit by the worst?

Mr. SIMMONS: Right. We've got our fingers and toes and legs crossed.

MONTAGNE: And what is the sense there of what is going to happen?

Mr. SIMMONS: Oh, people's worried because these fishermen can't get out and work and they've got, you know, boat notes from the hurricane. They had to redo their homes. They've got home notes. They're not going to be able to pay their bills, so they're going to be in trouble.

MONTAGNE: Talk about boats - are any of the folks you know becoming part of this sort of instant cleanup crew that's being assembled?

Mr. SIMMONS: Yes, they are. I saw quite a few boats going out yesterday. I think they put like 500 on or something like that. But the weather had been so bad lately, they couldn't get really out along the beach to work, because it's too rough. But if it stays kind of calm, well, they might be able to clean a lot of it up before it does too much damage, you know?

MONTAGNE: I'm wondering if it would have any affect on your cattle.

Mr. SIMMONS: Yeah, if it comes into the marshes. A lot of our cattle feed on the marsh grass and it would kill all the grass. And then we would have to get rid of the cattle or get them somewhere(ph) where they can get feed. And the only way I could do that is by boat, you know. There's no roads out there. And I'd have to lower them on barges and bring them in and then load them on trailers and ship them out.

MONTAGNE: Right. And that's going to be quite a trek to them out, right?

Mr. SIMMONS: Oh, that's a - yeah, we're looking at weeks to get them all out of there.

MONTAGNE: Well, thank you.

Mr. SIMMONS: Oh, it's a pleasure talking to y'all.

MONTAGNE: Phillip Simmons lives in Empire, Louisiana. That's in Plaquemines Parish. Waiting to see what will happen with the Gulf oil spill.

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