Wednesday, April 20, 2011

How do we measure the impact of the BP spill, which began one year ago today, April 20, with the explosion of the Deepwater Horizon rig — a blast that killed 11 men and opened the spigot on the worst environmental disaster in U.S. history?

How much oil is still out there? And what about the toxic dispersants? What, if any, are the long-term health and environmental effects of the BP spill?

One yardstick is the full-page, full-color ads BP is still buying in newspapers. This has been a boon for the dailies. We see them on a routine basis in The Advertiser. I suspect The Times-Picayune has been the biggest beneficiary based on its circulation and proximity to the disaster.

If BP is still convincing us that everything’s going to be OK, if it’s not moving on, how can we?

The headlines lately have ramped up, predictable since the media measure in discrete chunks of months and years, and a one-year anniversary is de rigueur.

The degree to which the spill still pollutes our collective consciousness appears to correlate to our distance from the coast. It’s daily for lower reaches of Plaquemines, Jefferson and St. Bernard parishes and the barren marshes, shuttered seafood vendors and idled charter boats, and for the Gulf Coast hospitality industry still struggling to lure tourists.

Last summer The Ind profiled in a cover story the Collins family of Golden Meadow, four generations of oystermen who worked leases in Caminada Bay, which until last year was a major supplier for restaurants here in Acadiana. At the time the future was uncertain for these men, but, like oysters affixed to their beds, they clung to hope. Now what is certain is the loss of their livelihood.

I found a story about the family patriarch, 73-year-old Wilbert Collins, on of all places the Louisiana Seafood Promotion and Marketing Board’s website last week. Wilbert’s oyster beds are dead, victims not of the oil that is still sporadically polluting the shores and marshes, but of the fresh water that was diverted from the north in an effort to push the oil out to sea.

Wilbert had to lay off his sons, heirs to the once-thriving family business. His hand-hewn boat, the Braud & Tracy, bobs silently at a dock. It’s almost certain that Wilbert will die a former oysterman.

A friend of mine recently accompanied a group of 10 Gulf Coast activists on a walk from New Orleans to Washington, D.C., to raise awareness about the ongoing health and environmental effects of the spill. A newspaper in western Virginia profiled them as they neared D.C. Yet all the comments on the paper’s website save for one from a New Orleans ex-pat simply and deafly praised the innkeepers who allowed the group free board for the night. The spill is over in western Virginia.

The Deepwater Horizon blew on a Tuesday. It was a big deal here in roustabout country because 11 people died and the massive inferno was crack for the hovering TV cameras. But Festival International began that week, and for about 350,000 people in Lafayette, myself included, the cataclysm melted into the cacophony of djembes, trumpets and coincidental reunions. It wasn’t until after the festival that the real magnitude — the unremitting, unrepentant gush of oil — began to sink in. It just wouldn’t stop.

While the long-term public health consequences of the spill remain unknown, a recent survey by Greater New Orleans Inc., an economic development agency, finds that negative perceptions of Louisiana seafood are persistent. So even if Gulf produce is the most rigorously tested in the world — and utterly safe to consume — it is unsalable.

I shared a dozen raw oysters with friends recently at a downtown restaurant. I asked the proprietor about their provenance. He sheepishly told me he got them from “a supplier in Hammond.”

I left it at that.

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