BOOTHVILLE, La. (CN) - In a Plaquemines Parish town hall meeting Tuesday, a Coast Guard representative downplayed the environmental consequence of the British Petroleum oil spill and was immediately challenged by a fisherman who wanted to know why the U.S. government is carrying water for BP. "Where the heck does that even come from in the United States that corporations are going to dictate to the government what they're not going to do and what they will do?" said the boat captain.
"The fact is," Coast Guard Representative Edward Stanton said, "the Coast Guard in Louisiana has been cleaning up oil out of the marshes for decades. I don't consider this an environmental disaster," he added. "But it is an economic disaster."
Stanton said the Coast Guard has been doing the very best job it can and promised to continue working hard. "We're doing the best we can, and we'll do better. We will do better," Stanton said.
BP's oil rig the Deepwater Horizon exploded April 20, killing 11 people and wounding 17 others. Since then, millions of gallons of crude have poured into the Gulf of Mexico, possibly eclipsing each week the 11 million gallons spilled during the 1989 Exxon Valdez disaster. A week ago, the first of the thick, black oil made landfall in the outer reaches of Plaquemines and other parishes, and has so far inundated 70 miles of Louisiana coastline.
Fishermen all along Louisiana's coastal parishes have had to kill their fishing operations as the oil continues to spew, leaving them without possibility for income from fishing along the Louisiana coast for what could potentially be decades, especially if the dispersant BP continues to use in heavy quantities is as toxic as critics fear. Corexit, of which BP has been using two varieties, is actually banned in BP's home nation, the United Kingdom, because of its toxicity.
Stanton assured parish residents that while it might not look on TV like the Coast Guard is working like crazy to clean up the spilled oil, actually there are 145 people working to clean the coast.
He said there is always a delay once the initial cleanup assessment report has been written because they "always have to be careful about sensitive archaeological and historical cleanup," and that an archaeologist has to come in to approve the cleanup efforts.
Stanton said that if there is water around the roots of plants otherwise covered in oil, then they are okay and can even sit for some time in the oily water.
In closing, Stanton promised that the "Coast Guard will make sure BP pays and cleans it up."
"You all have gotten an awful lot of high-level attention," he told the crowd. "You deserve high-level attention."
Plaquemines Parish President Billy Nungesser called the town meeting so fishermen could have the chance to speak with officials from the Coast Guard and BP face-to-face, and to give parish residents an opportunity to voice their concerns, as well as for the parish to identify the top issues currently bothering fishermen.
Larry Thomas, a Representative from BP, told the parish residents, "There is absolutely nothing I can say that is going to make you feel better. We regret what happened," he said. "But we are going to make it right."
Like Stanton, Thomas conceded BP hasn't done a perfect job thus far. "Clearly we haven't done enough," he said. "We will work harder."
The crowd at the town hall meeting was somber. Some of the fishermen stood in lines to register with BP for emergency assistance. Many people filled the gymnasium bleachers.
The first parish fisherman to kick off the question and answer session was Mike Frenette, a charter boat captain from Venice.
"Where the heck does that even come from in the United States that corporations are going to dictate to the government what they're not going to do and what they will do?" Frenette addressed Stanton regarding the government's sudden decision to continue to let BP use dispersants that are banned in the United Kingdom for being toxic.
Cheers and clapping broke out from the people filling the bleachers.
Over the past weekend, the Coast Guard gave BP an ultimatum to stop using the dispersant by Sunday night. The deadline came and went with BP continuing to unload unprecedented quantities of the chemical, until Monday, when local Environmental Protection Agency Administrator Lisa Jackson said BP can continue to use the dispersant, but asked BP to reduce the amount it uses.
Saying she believes BP can reduce the amount used by as much as 80 percent, Jackson added that her plea to BP to scale back on the use was part of "making environmental tradeoffs," as the EPA is "deeply concerned" about the potential side effects of Corexit.
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.
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.
Going on, Frenette questioned the Coast Guard's decision to specifically say this oil spill is not an environmental disaster.
"I don't understand how you can have toxic chemicals on a plant -that goes to the roots of the plant -and you're going to tell me that's not harmful," he said.
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