NEW ORLEANS—The anger is palpable across the Mississippi Delta. As the Deepwater Horizon oil geyser, almost a mile underwater, continues unabated, the brunt of this, the largest environmental catastrophe in United States history, is rolling onto the coast, impacting the ecology, the economy and entire ways of life.
I traveled across the bayous and towns of coastal Louisiana for four days, meeting the people on the front lines of the onrush of BP’s oil slick. They are angry, out of work and read the papers about people getting sick.
One person, whose job remains intact—at least so far—is BP’s CEO, Tony Hayward. Hayward, who was paid more than $4.5 million in 2009, lamented Sunday: “There’s no one who wants this thing over more than I do. You know, I’d like my life back.” Hayward becomes more vilified with almost each of his utterances, which are clearly aimed at minimizing the perceived impact of the BP disaster. He will probably be increasingly guarded in his remarks, as U.S. Attorney General Eric Holder just toured the area and, in a public statement, said: “We must also ensure that anyone found responsible for this spill is held accountable. That means enforcing the appropriate civil—and if warranted, criminal—authorities to the full extent of the law.”
On Grand Isle, we met Dean Blanchard, who owns the largest shrimp business in the area. He took us out on his boat, where he expressed his strong feelings about President Barack Obama: “I thought he was a man of the people, that he would’ve come out and met the businesses that are suffering, and look at us, and tell us, give us a little assurance that he would help us, but he just hid by the Coast Guard station like all the other presidents.” Blanchard’s parents and grandparents were shrimpers. With his strong Cajun accent, he explained the effect of the tides on the oil:
“I made my living off of watching tides. We hunt shrimp. You can’t see a shrimp. You know how we know where the shrimp’s at? Because of the tides. When the tide goes out, the more water goes out, the more water comes back, and when it comes back, it brings everything with it. It usually brings the shrimp, but this time it’s going to be bringing the oil.”
Blanchard says fishermen are like farmers: “We lose money in January, February, March and April, preparing to harvest our crop in May, June and July. So we spend a lot of money preparing to get to May.” When the Deepwater Horizon exploded April 20, thousands of fisherfolk, their families, and the businesses and communities that depend on them saw their annual income disappear, with bleak prospects.
Many shrimp-boat owners have now been hired by BP to work on the cleanup. One local fisherman, John Wunstell Jr., was rushed to the hospital with respiratory problems that he attributed to the noxious environment.
He and others claim BP has prohibited the use of masks, and he has filed a request for an injunction to force BP to provide masks and other protective gear to cleanup workers. The response of BP’s Hayward? “I’m sure they were genuinely ill, but whether it was anything to do with dispersants and oil, whether it was food poisoning or some other reason for them being ill. ... It’s one of the big issues of keeping the army operating. You know, armies march on their stomachs.”
Blanchard was enraged. Why, he asked, did BP confiscate the clothing of their workers once they donned hospital gowns? He said: “I don’t think you need people’s clothes to test for food poisoning. You’d only need people’s clothes to test for chemical poisoning.”
Blanchard took us out into the Gulf to see the skimming operations. None of the boat owners would talk to us. Blanchard explained, “They’re scared to talk, and they’re scared to be seen, because BP has threatened them that if they talk to the media, they’re going to be fired.”
One fisherman, Glenn Swift, whom we met in Buras, La., confirmed that he signed a contract with a clause stating that speaking to the media was grounds for termination. When I asked him why, then, he was talking to me, he said: “I don’t feel it’s the right thing to shut somebody up. We’re supposed to live in the United States, and we’re supposed to have freedom of speech.”
Down the road from Blanchard, a family has erected 101 crosses in their front yard, each one commemorating something they love, like “brown pelicans,” “beach sunsets” and “sand between the toes.” The sign next to the cemetery of dreams reads, “In memory of all that is lost, courtesy of BP and our federal government.”
Denis Moynihan contributed research to this column.