The lessons not learned from the Gulf Coast oil spill

It’s been a year since the BP disaster, and nobody has learned anything

Spilling over

Lee Celano/Reuters

Already it’s been a year since the explosion of the Deepwater Horizon. Eleven men lost their lives in that tragic—and absolutely avoidable—event, one that ushered in a new, dark era for the population of the Gulf Coast. What we witnessed slowly, sickeningly unfold down here over the next several months, like some crawling black plague into the blue waters of the Gulf of Mexico, was not just the worst environmental disaster in U.S. history, but one of the worst in recent world history.

Yes, we along the coast were already steeled to face federal, state and local government inaction and plain old confusion, masked by lies that tried to downplay the scope of the crisis. A hurricane half a decade ago prepared us for that. What many of us sadly weren’t prepared for was to have British Petroleum, that monstrous multinational powerhouse, whisper sweet nothings into our ears about how everything was going to be just fine, us little guys bent painfully over its leaking oil barrels. Apparently, it’s the whole “fool me once, shame on you” scenario playing out its second chorus, and so shame on us for not wanting to dare envision that after only one short year of BP playing out its good cop/bad cop act, or should I say responsible corporation/profitable corporation ruse, it now begins the act of walking away, wiping its hands of any further blame or restitution.

People down here seem to me to exist in two very different worlds of anger when it comes to what BP has rendered in our lives. There are those most directly impacted by the spill—the commercial fishermen, oystermen and shrimpers, the very ones who deserve to be most livid—who seem to be the ones who’ve learned to temper their anger in an almost Zen-like way. And then there are the rest of us who care, a large and amorphous group, the ones who were less directly affected and yet, ironically, seem the most deeply angry at this mess that’s been left behind on our doorstep.

Allow me to examine that first group, the commercial fishermen so inextricably tied to the waters here. A friend of mine, Capt. Billy Bucano, just one of thousands on the Gulf Coast who make a living directly from harvesting the waters, is certainly among the more famous charter captains in southeast Louisiana. His operation, Titeline Charters, has been built on taking out recreational fishermen through the marshes and onto the bigger waters of Plaquemines and Saint Bernard parishes to reel in trophy speckled trout, redfish, bass and flounder. Captain Billy makes his living around Delacroix Island, an hour’s drive from New Orleans, and he’s talkative in that knowledgeable way that separates him from, say, my musician friends.

Billy’s also a gentleman. He makes sure to point out that compared to the fishermen down in places right on the coast like Grand Isle and Lafitte, the ones who continue to watch tar balls wash up on shore and who only need to dig a little way down into the sand to find slicks of gooey black, he’s lucky. Sure, sheens of oil washed into Billy’s marshes, carried in by winds and tides. Of course his business has been affected to the point he worries how he’s going to pay bills, but Captain Billy didn’t have to face—to the same degree, anyway—watching the landscape and waterscape he loves be contaminated as badly. And so he’s thankful for this.

Yet a full year after the disaster, I ask him how business is doing. When he tells me it’s off at least 50 or 60 per cent, I wonder how he remains so positive. Billy has great rapport with his fellow fishermen all through this part of Louisiana, and they’re all suffering the same fate. But when I push him, it isn’t anger he responds with. “People all over still believe these waters are fouled,” he says. “We’ve got to get the word out that the fishing here is good. I want my congressman, my senator, to tell the White House it’s time to throw a great big Louisiana seafood festival right on the South Lawn, let the world know we are still here and that our seafood is good.”

It doesn’t take him long, though, to turn a little more gloomy. “Normally at Jazz Fest, I’ve got two or three charters coming through each week of festival-goers who want to do a little fishing. But not a one this year. The perception people have of our situation is disastrous. I can just hear them saying, ‘I don’t want to go fishing in oil.’ ”

And with a little more pushing, the elephant in the room finally emerges. “For the first six months, BP was fair to me,” he says, quickly adding, “but I can’t speak for others. I keep a tight ship, and very good records.” He pauses. “BP set up interim claims that are supposed to run through to 2013.” He explains that if one can continue to prove that his business continues to suffer, BP has promised to keep compensating. But a quick investigation on my part shows that even impeccably kept records of years past, needed to prove a fall in income, don’t seem to be good enough. Oil spill claims czar Kenneth Feinberg admitted in March that only 1,500 claims have been paid for 2010 losses, and a startling 105,000 claimants aren’t able to produce the documentation he requires. “My claim that covers the first three months of 2011 was supposed to come over a month ago,” Billy continues. “It hasn’t. When I call, the first question they ask me is if I’ve filed a suit with an attorney against BP. They’re worried about that, and not that they haven’t compensated anybody for their ongoing losses.”

I ask Billy why he thinks such a question is asked when all he’s doing is trying to get money promised to him.

“All I can guess is that they’re playing a waiting game with deadlines to see if claimants are actually going to respond.” Then he adds, “and now the deadline for the second claim has come.” As of April 1, BP started the 2011 second quarter of interim claims, and it appears that the thousands upon thousands of claimants who haven’t been paid, for whatever reason, are stacking up like dead crustaceans on the bottom of the Gulf.

And so the fishermen, the oystermen, the shrimpers, the men who toil in the physical world, continue to work when work can be found, stoic in the face of this latest adversity, fighting off their anger because they understand how self-destructive it can be. But what about the others? The ones who haven’t been directly affected—that large and amorphous group I spoke of? Are we allowed to be so angry? Are we just a bunch of whiners?

I believe so many of us down here are angry in part because we’re scared. A year on, now, and no one seems to have learned a lesson from the disaster. In Louisiana, there’s feverish shouting to resume deepwater drilling, despite no talk of relief wells or any real evidence of true safety measures. Recent discussions of exploiting tar sands in Utah that rival those in Alberta have oilmen slobbering. Arctic drilling in highly sensitive areas is not just back on the table but, apparently, just a matter of time. Gas prices have risen to record highs, due, supposedly, to Mideast conflict, and yet our thirst for fuel has never been stronger. All of this despite green energy not just being viable but already at our fingertips.

When I say we’ve entered a new, dark era, I don’t say it lightly. Many had hoped, naively, that the madness that unfolded over the course of three months last year might have a silver lining in that the call for safer, renewable energy would grow. Instead, a year later, Americans are screaming that a gallon of gas costs far too much, and this in turn gives the GOP traction in their growing calls to not just downsize the Environmental Protection Agency but to be rid of it completely, thus opening the doors entirely to those who scream, “Drill, baby, drill!” There’s not just a public mistrust of scientists, but a cynical disdain for the 95 or so per cent of them who are rationally pointing out that we’re speeding up the world’s demise through our unchecked consumption of fossil fuels. This is the same U.S. public that’s been warned by our doctors that the majority of us are not just overweight but obese, and our lifestyles are putting us in jeopardy. Our demand for wanting what we want, and wanting it now, is destroying us from within as well as without.

Is it sheer coincidence that scores of dead dolphins washed up on Gulf Coast beaches this past winter? No one’s willing to jump to conclusions, for some reason, about that one. I fear that we’re unable to change our bad habits, and if this is the case, we’d better prepare for a string of environmental tragedies over this next decade, disasters that will cause irreparable harm to our world and bring not just the U.S. but the Canadian economy to its knees. I don’t blame only the greed and short-sightedness of our multinational corporations for any future catastrophes. We as individuals, with our ever-expanding communal waistlines, demand that every little fancy and hunger needs instant gratification. But, simply asked, how much longer can the Earth sustain the unsustainable? If ever there was a time to change, it is now, one year later. Hopefully, it’s not one year too late.

Looking for more?

Get the Best of Maclean's sent straight to your inbox. Sign up for news, commentary and analysis.