'The Plan Is to Let Us Die,' Coastal Parish President Says
GALLIANO, La. (CN) - Almost 70 miles of Louisiana coast are soaked with oil. That's more land than the seashores of Maryland and Delaware combined, Gov. Bobby Jindal said Monday after Secretary of the Interior Ken Salazar and Secretary of Homeland Security Janet Napolitano were flown over the devastated coast. Napolitano said the federal government would "disperse it, boom it, burn it," to keep more oil from coming ashore. But St. Bernard Parish President Craig Taffaro had a different idea. "I would be betting the plan is to let us die," Taffaro said.
Federal officials delivered messages similar to Napolitano's, but none wanted to address an incident that occurred last weekend, when BP and the Coast Guard abandoned 44 boats loaded with booms on Louisiana's shores as thick black oil flooded into the marshlands.
BP was nowhere in sight as the oil inundated the fragile marshes. And the oil company has provided little explanation about what made it jump ship rather fight the oil as it hit land.
BP has continued to spray two chemical dispersants into the Gulf despite an order by the Environmental Protection Agency to end the spraying on Sunday night. The chemical dispersants, made by Corexit, are banned in BP's homeland, the United Kingdom, because of their toxicity.
Ever since the April 20 explosion of the BP oil rig the Deepwater Horizon, oil has spewed unchecked from a broken well at the bottom of the Gulf of Mexico. At least 6 million gallons of crude have already gushed into the Gulf, though the estimates vary widely. Some experts have said that every week the spill has dumped more than the 11 million gallons the Exxon Valdez released off the Alaskan coast in 1989, in what was formerly the worst oil spill in U.S. history.
Far below Louisiana's fragile wetlands are reserves of crude oil and other valuable minerals. Local residents speculated on Monday that BP is after the mineral rights, which it cannot touch while the wetlands are alive.
It's a grim prospect, perhaps far-fetched, but not for those who live along the 70 miles of oil-saturated coast, who wonder what the heck happened this weekend when BP refused to fight the incoming oil.
"We can actually see birds that are covered in oil," Gov. Jindal said Monday at the news conference in Galliano.
"It is clear that we do not have the resources to protect our coast," Jindal said, describing the past weekend, as booms and workers "sat for days waiting for orders" and got no direction approval from BP or the federal government.
The Army Corps of Engineers has continued to drag its feet on whether to approve dredging plans to create a barrier around Louisiana's wetlands. BP officials have not proposed any plan to prevent the oil from moving away from the broken well and into Louisiana's fragile marshes.
Salazar said he will do everything he can to keep Louisiana's coast from disappearing.
"We're going to keep the boot on the map," Salazar said, referring to the shape of his the state.
Interior Secretary Salazar and other federal officials continue to claim that damages will be kept at a minimum, and have been managed to get BP to acknowledge responsibility for the continuing disaster, but Louisiana officials and residents say there is no plan in sight to protect them.
Many environmental experts have said that an oil cleanup might cause more harm to the coastline than just leaving it there, so the only viable option is to keep the oil away.
A caller from St. Tammany Parish broke into tears Monday on a talk show on radio WWL. "All they're trying to do is destroy the wetlands so they can get the mineral rights to all of whatever is under" the wetlands, the woman said.
The Obama administration questioned BP's competence on Sunday, when Salazar told reporters he was "not completely" confident BP knows what it's doing.
For local residents, BP's violation of the Sunday night deadline to stop using the toxic dispersant felt like a slap in the face.
"Are they just going to continue spraying this stuff until someone sends them to jail?" Plaquemines Parish President Billy Nungesser asked on WWL radio Monday night.
Nungesser said he and other coastal parish presidents are fed up with BP and the federal government. Nungesser said he intends to take matters into his own hands, whether the Corps of Engineers issues his parish the emergency permit he applied for on May 13 or not, and whether BP decides help keep oil out of the wetlands or not.
"We are giving the Corps 24 hours" to issue the emergency permits, Nungesser said on WWL. "We are giving them the opportunity to do the right thing. But even without their permit, we will protect our parish."
After 24 hours, permit or not, Nungesser said Plaquemines Parish will begin dredging and building emergency berms, as a last line of defense against oil intrusion into Plaquemines Parish marshes.
"If we don't do it, our marsh will be destroyed," Nungesser said.
The wetlands are prime breeding habitat for dozens or hundreds of species of wildlife, including fish, crustaceans and birds.
"We're heavily invested in doing the very best job that we can," BP spokesman Mark Salt said on WWL radio Monday.
Doug Suttles, BP's chief operating officer, said Monday that BP will spend $500 million in the next 10 years to study the effects of the Deepwater Horizon catastrophe, including the environmental effects of the dispersant.
As it became clear Monday that BP had not followed orders to stop using Corexit, EPA Administrator Lisa Jackson said that BP does not have to stop using it completely, but asked BP to limit its use of the dispersant and to find a less toxic replacement.
Richard Dennison, a senior scientist with the Environmental Defense Fund wrote on the group's website Monday that Corexit 9527 and Corexit 9500, the two forms BP is using, are "among the least effective of the 18 dispersants that EPA has approved under the National Oil and Hazardous Pollution Contingency Plan."
Dennison wrote that the dispersants "appear to be among the more toxic based on limited short-term toxicity tests conducted on fish and shrimp."
BP has been using Corexit during the oil spill catastrophe in far greater quantities than ever before in U.S. history.
Jackson said other chemicals the EPA wanted BP to consider appear to be less toxic and more effective than Corexit.
"My concern is they appear to be going out of their way to find problems with these other chemicals," Jackson said.
Propublica reported last week that Corexit was used after the Exxon Valdez disaster and was later linked with health problems, including respiratory, nervous system, liver, kidney, and blood disorders. One of the two Corexit products that BP is suing in the Gulf also contains a compound that is associated with headaches, vomiting and reproductive problems, according to the Propublica report.