NEAL CONAN, HOST:
This is TALK OF THE NATION. I'm Neal Conan in Washington. This week the federal government and Gulf Coast states took BP and its contractors to court seeking billions in civil damages for the disaster that began almost three years ago now, with the explosion of the Deepwater Horizon oil rig. Some call it the trial of the century.
The disaster at the heart of the case killed 11 oil workers and dumped at least 170 million gallons of crude into the water, oil that fouled beaches and wetlands, killed birds and fish, ruined the tourism and seafood businesses and shut down offshore oil, at least for a while.
As a federal judge hears arguments over who's responsible for what, we want to hear from those of you who live in and work in the Gulf. What's happened to your lives and businesses, to your beaches and wetlands. What effects do you still see from the oil spill? 800-989-8255. Email us, email@example.com. You can also join the conversation on our website. That's at npr.org. Click on TALK OF THE NATION.
Later in the program, we want to hear about your favorite short poem, and we mean short. Email us now. The address again is firstname.lastname@example.org. But first the Gulf Coast, and we begin with national correspondent Debbie Elliott, who's been reporting on this story from the very beginning, and good to have you back on the program.
DEBBIE ELLIOTT, BYLINE: Hi, thanks Neal.
CONAN: And I guess people have been having a bit of a flashback this week.
ELLIOTT: Yeah, it's been an opportunity, especially for those who are following the court proceedings, to hear all of the decisions that were just so wrong, that made it very clear this was a preventable disaster.
CONAN: Now you live and work along the Gulf Coast. Is the spill still one of the first things that comes up when you talk to people?
ELLIOTT: You know, not really. People have moved on and are trying to recover and go on with their lives. And in the region where I live, on the coast of Alabama, you know, tourism has come back. And if you don't pay really close attention, you don't know that the spill is still with you.
But if you talk to the environmental manager for the city of Orange Beach, you get a much different picture. We talked a little bit earlier, today, about what he calls the ongoing issue of traveling tar. Basically there are these submerged mats of tar that are out between the beach and the sand bars in the Gulf of Mexico. And when weather happens, say you get a hurricane, a tropical storm or even just a series of serious thunderstorms like we did around Christmastime, it churns up that oil, and it washes ashore. And you get another big section of beach that has tar balls that has to be cleaned up.
So it's sort of an ongoing staying-ahead-of-the-tar-balls process. Right now BP is doing that, but he's concerned that when BP is gone, the city is going to have to assume that monitoring, from now and into the future, and he's hoping that BP will have to pay for that for years, and years and years to come.
CONAN: We want to hear from those of you who live along the Gulf Coast, who work there. What's happened to your lives and your businesses or the beaches you go to or - well anyway, let's start with a caller. This is Lewis(ph), Lewis with us from Columbia in South Carolina.
LEWIS: Yes, I used to work in - I'm from Mexico, and I've been here about 15 years. And I used to work in Louisiana for five years, fishing, and I worked for someone. And I was - when everything happened, there was no work, and I couldn't stay there. So I moved to South Carolina. And I wasn't paid - you could say I was paid under the table, always have.
But it was good work, everything was great, but that happened, and me and a bunch of other people I know, who were either Latinos or from other countries, who were in my same situation, we had to leave. We just - we couldn't stay. There was no work.
CONAN: Especially if you were living from paycheck to paycheck, or envelope to envelope in any case. Any plans to go back, Lewis?
LEWIS: It's not very secure. It's not - I mean, nothing is secure, sure. Right now I'm just working, believe it or not, construction. It's better than fishing right now, for me, anyway.
CONAN: Well good luck, thanks very much for the phone call.
LEWIS: Thank you.
CONAN: Joining us now is Edward Overton, a professor emeritus at the environmental society - of environmental sciences at Louisiana State University in Baton Rouge. He's there with us from his office on the LSU campus. Nice to have you back on the program.
EDWARD OVERTON: Thank you, Neal.
CONAN: And we spoke last, in fall of 2011. You'd just returned from collecting oil samples along the Gulf shoreline, which you said looked remarkably normal. Has recovery continued, or have there been effects of the spill that have taken time to show up?
OVERTON: Well, recovery is - I mean, the environment is dramatically better than it was in the summer of 2010. Now that doesn't mean there's not still oil. We heard about the buried tar mats that every so often get washed up, and there's tar-balling. But these events, again, are nothing like what happened in the summer of 2010. There was oil everywhere.
And there's a big difference between an abnormal level of tar balls washing up, than oil all over the beach. Now we also have, over in Louisiana, some of that oil has been buried in the marshes. And with events like Hurricane Isaac, it washed some of this oil up. So we had a re-oiling. But again, this is a slight re-oiling, nothing like we had in the summer of 2010. Our environment is strongly, strongly coming back to its normal situations.
CONAN: What happened to all that oil?
OVERTON: Well, most of the oil gets degraded. You know, oil is a natural product. It is a natural product in the Gulf of Mexico, believe it or not. Depending on who you talk to, between 20 and 50 million gallons of oil seep into the Gulf of Mexico every year. So there's a lot of oil seeping into the Gulf.
That means that the natural environment is acclimated to using that oil to convert it to bacteria. The bacteria then serve as food sources for animals that eat bacteria and, so on, up the food chain. When you have a gusher of oil like we had in the summer of 2010, Mother Nature's mechanisms kick in. The bacterial population expands and degrades most of that oil.
Unfortunately when the oil gets buried, down where there's not much oxygen, then the bacteria can't degrade it. So basically buried oil stays around. And that's what we're seeing now, that oil that got buried in the inner tidal zone and in the marshes doesn't degrade very fast, if at all. And when a storm event comes along, it resurfaces it, and there's a slight re-oiling along the beaches and marshes.
But again, comparing it to the summer of 2010 and now is just not the right thing to do. We - it's a slight re-oiling now. It was a horrible mess - and that's the nicest way I can put it is a horrible mess - in the summer of 2010.
CONAN: Are you surprised by the extent to which things have rebounded?
OVERTON: It actually rebounded a little quicker than I expected it, and I was pretty optimistic from the start. This was a very light crude oil, South Louisiana crude crude oil. A lot of its components volatilized, a lot of them were dissolved in the water because it was released at such a deep depth of 5,000 feet.
So you had a lot of it dissolved in the water that didn't come ashore. But still it is - what didn't get buried has been substantially degraded. So it's just a perfect example of the resilience of Mother Nature if you give her a chance.
CONAN: Ed Overton, thanks very much for being with us again, we appreciate your time.
CONAN: Ed Overton is professor emeritus of environmental sciences at Louisiana State University in Baton Rouge, and joined us from his office there. Debbie Elliott, this is one of the big issues in the trial that is going on right now, because a lot of people say we don't know what's going to happen with some of this - the effects of this spill five, 10 years from now.
ELLIOTT: Exactly, and state officials are particularly concerned in Louisiana because they already have such a fragile coastline. You know, they lose something like a football field a day of wetlands. And early science has indicated that the oiling of their marshes and wetlands has accelerated the pace of that in some places.
If you talk to Garret Graves, who's the governor, Bobby Jindal's coastal advisor, the top coastal person in Louisiana, he says today in Louisiana they still have what is considered to be 200 miles of oiled shoreline. Granted it's not those pictures that we all remember from three years ago of big globs of brown covering everything, but you can go step in a marsh and push down, and oil seeps up.
And scientists are just now starting to sort of figure out what the baseline was in the Gulf of Mexico in 2010 and what damage has been done and what damage might be expected in the future. And that's going to be a big question mark in terms of deciding what BP has to pay for the natural resources damage that it caused in the spill.
CONAN: Let's get another caller in. This is Angie(ph), Angie on the line with us from Biloxi, Mississippi.
ANGIE: Hello, how are you doing?
CONAN: I'm well, thank you.
CONAN: And what's your situation?
ANGIE: Well, I actually - we are more on the economical side, as opposed to environmental. We own and operate limited-service hotel properties along the Mississippi Gulf Coast, specifically Biloxi, Ocean Springs, Bay St. Louis areas. And from our point of view, what we saw was that initially, right after the oil spill, we did experience a small bump, and that was mostly due to contract labor for oil company cleanup coming through.
And then went on for a couple of months. So I think that actually subsidize the tourism that started declining directly after the oil spill. Of course what happens is after that contract leaves, then you're stuck with nothing to really fill the space, and that's what happened in 2011. We saw a substantial decrease in our sales for our properties.
And only in 2012, and hopefully this year we're starting to see the turnaround. And I think an earlier caller mentioned that they were surprised at how soon it was. And we also feel that yeah, we are seeing the turnaround now.
CONAN: And people are happy to come and visit and hit the beach?
ANGIE: Well, I surely hope so. You know, we have a good casino industry there, also, and I don't know how the casinos have done, my guess is that they probably did better than the smaller properties along the coast. But, you know, for the most part it's really great. Tourism is back on track, and we encourage people to come to the area.
CONAN: Well Angie, good luck.
ANGIE: Thank you very much.
CONAN: Appreciate the phone call.
ELLIOTT: And Neal, you know, BP has paid a lot of money to run a national advertising campaign encouraging people to come back to the Gulf Coast. And some people think that's had a bit of an impact.
CONAN: If you live and work in the Gulf region, what's happened to your life, to your environment since the BP oil spill? 800-989-8255. Email us, email@example.com. Debbie Elliott is with us, who's been covering this story from the beginning, the spill and now the trial. I'm Neal Conan. You're listening to TALK OF THE NATION from NPR News.
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CONAN: This is TALK OF THE NATION from NPR News. I'm Neal Conan. Scientists and public officials are still trying to determine the long-term effects of 2010's oil spill in the Gulf of Mexico. More than 1,000 met in New Orleans last month to share their research on everything from the best way to clean oil mousse from the marshes, to what's happening to shrimp that swim through oily areas, to the mental and physical health problems Gulf region residents are still dealing with.
We'll hear from one of the researchers from the National Audubon Society a little later in the program. If you live and work in the Gulf, we want you to weigh in, too. What happened to your life, to your business, to your marshes and your beaches? 800-989-8255. Email firstname.lastname@example.org. You can also join the conversation on our website. Go to npr.org. Click on TALK OF THE NATION.
NPR correspondent Debbie Elliott is with us. And joining us now is Captain Sonny Schindler, owner of Shore Thing Fishing Charters in Bay St. Louis, Mississippi. Good to have you on the program.
SONNY SCHINDLER: Good to be here.
CONAN: How's business?
SCHINDLER: Business is good, man. We've expanded every year with the exception of the year of the spill, but we're doing good, just having to work for everything.
CONAN: What happened initially afterwards? I assume you had to shut down?
SCHINDLER: We did, unfortunately. We tried to go as long as we could. We wanted to keep fishing. But for precautionary measures, they closed the waters that we fish. So we couldn't work if we wanted to. So we had to - all of our guides took jobs assisting in the cleanup.
CONAN: So kept bread on the table that way.
SCHINDLER: Yes, sir. You know, we had to make money somehow, and a couple of the guys worked out at the barrier islands cleaning oil, and a few of them used their charter boats to physically go out there and get it. Myself and another guide, we worked in logistics, and we traveled to every port from Florida to West Louisiana. It was a long couple of months.
But we're back, you know, and fishing's good, and business is great.
CONAN: I was just about to ask: The fishing is good?
SCHINDLER: The fishing is very good. Our fishery basically got a year off between the closures and the worries of the areas that we were in, that might be contaminated. Nobody was out there, the shrimpers, the fishermen, all the commercial guys. So when we came back in 2011, it was just a free-for-all. There was just fish everywhere.
And I'm sure you're going to go with the is it safe to eat...
CONAN: I was going to mention that.
SCHINDLER: But, you know, we keep in close contact with the local research lab. They're on a first-name friend list with us. We fish with them. We know them well. And they've assured us that everything's good to go, safe to eat. And we've done well catching and eating it. So life is good.
CONAN: Are the same fish in the same areas where they've always been? Have things changed?
SCHINDLER: From a population standpoint, honestly I think there's more. You know, and hopefully it's just going to stay good. I hope we don't get an echo or a tremor down the road from a break in the food chain, but our fishing's as good, if not better, than it's ever been.
ELLIOTT: May I ask what you fish? Is it red snapper primarily, tuna, what?
SCHINDLER: No, ma'am, we're an inshore, it's speckled trout, redfish, flounder, triple tail, sharks, and then there's a host of other stuff but primarily marsh species, speckled trout.
ELLIOTT: So you're inside the barrier islands there in the Mississippi Sound, mostly, and inland?
SCHINDLER: And the Louisiana marsh. We're licensed to fish both states. We're right on the border of Mississippi and Louisiana.
CONAN: And when you said break in the food chain, what are you worried about?
SCHINDLER: Well, the - you know, if something were to happen from the oil, the dispersant, it might be at a microbial level. We might not see a fish floating belly-up. It may have wiped out a generation of eggs. You know, the spill hit during the spring, which for us is spawning season, and we might not see the effects of that for another year or two, seeing that the spill was, you know, years ago.
But everything we've had from 2011 to now, it's great. Our fishing is incredible. Everything's where it should be in healthy numbers, size and appearance. You know, there's no scars or lesions on our fish that you hear about - just in our area. You know, I can't speak for areas, you know, in Alabama and Florida and different parts of Louisiana. But our area is good to go.
CONAN: Well, Sonny...
ELLIOTT: Do you fish as far as the Barataria Basin?
SCHINDLER: As far as Barataria Bay? No ma'am, that's on the other side of the Mississippi River. We're on the east side of the river.
CONAN: Well, Sonny Schindler, thanks very much for your time, and continued good luck.
SCHINDLER: Thank you very much.
CONAN: Captain Schindler, the owner of Shore Thing Charters, he joined us from his home in Bay St. Louis. And is - are those the kind of reports you're getting from most of the fisheries?
ELLIOTT: We are getting similar reports. The reason I interrupted to ask a question, Neal, is because from the Mississippi River back east, fisherman are reporting just record catch, no problems, numbers. But then if you go to the other side of the Mississippi River, there have been a couple of spots, and some fisherman that I've spoken with particularly in Barataria Bay, who saw some problems the year after the spill in terms of they weren't - in speckled trout, redfish. They weren't catching the numbers that they normally would.
And that was one of the areas that was right at ground zero in terms of when the oil came inshore in Louisiana. It really got hit hard there. And they wondered if the fish had moved. I mean, they had a lot of questions about what was going on. So it depends - it's very specific to different spots along the Gulf Coast as to what fishermen are reporting.
CONAN: Let's go next to Joe(ph), and Joe's on the line with us from Louisville, Kentucky.
JOE: Hi Neal, thanks for taking my call.
JOE: Yeah, my family and I have been going down to that Gulf area, down to the Pensacola area, the Redneck Riviera we like to call it, for about 25 years. And we camp down there, so we're really close to the water, and we get to see the damage. And as your - as the guest right there, as your correspondent says, we've been getting a lot of those BP feel-good commercials up here about the Gulf Coast is coming back, and, you know, come on down and visit.
And we have been down there. We were down there actually when the oil rode ashore in 2010. We were camping and just about had to leave because of the stench. It was almost like standing inside a refinery. It was awful. But my comment, every time that we've been down there and there's been a slight storm, some kind of rough waters, anything like that, the guys are out there immediately picking up all the oil balls and the debris from there.
I mean, they've got a crew of BP that they're out there immediately. But what we've noticed, and it's been our little piece of heaven down there for years, is the crabs, snakes, birds, you know, the dolphin and the fish. We just don't see them on the shoreline. We don't go out and fish or - you know, we go out in the water, but we just don't see the fish that we used to see in the water before the spill.
They're just gone, especially on the beach, with the crabs and, like I said, the snakes and the birds. We just don't see that down there. So I think a lot of people are kind of more or less saying come on down, we're doing good, but in actuality I think it's kind of just trying to get the people back down there.
CONAN: You expect the Chamber of Commerce to be talking up how good it is, yeah.
JOE: Absolutely. I think that every time I've ever been down there, especially in Pensacola, that's exactly what they're saying: Come on down, the beaches are beautiful, and the fish is safe to eat. But, you know, I see a lot of oil every time we've ever been down there coming up on the beach.
CONAN: All right, Joe, thanks very much for the call.
JOE: Sure, bye.
CONAN: Here's an email, this is from - I'm not quite sure who it's from: How many oil rigs are operated by companies that don't have deep pockets like BP? If one of them had a blowout, who would pay?
ELLIOTT: Well, that's a very good question. But it is the deep-pocket oil companies are the ones that can afford to drill in deep water, which is very complicated and the riskiest kind of drilling and more likely to create this kind of a massive accident. You know, there's an oil spill underway right now in the Gulf of Mexico. It's in shallow water. It's off of Port Sulphur. A crew boat ran into a well that had been abandoned for about the past five years.
Damaged the well, so an oily water mix started spewing out of it. The Coast Guard responded. The company responded. They're cleaning it up. They're trying to shut the well in. It's not going to be as near as complicated as it was to try to shut in the Macondo Well when it blew because it was so deep, and it was so complicated.
CONAN: Melanie Driscol, the National Audubon Society's director of bird conservation for the Gulf of Mexico and Mississippi Flyway. And it's good of you to be with us today.
MELANIE DRISCOLL: Thank you, Neal, I'm honored to be here to be able to speak for Gulf wildlife following the Macondo spill.
CONAN: It's interesting, one of the things you told NPR shortly after the spill was the bird you'd most be looking at is the brown pelican, kind of the canary in the coal mine. How's the brown pelican doing?
DRISCOLL: It's difficult to say because all of the studies - most of the studies of the birds that are being done following the spill are tied up in the natural resources damage assessment legal process. So the results are not available. We do see a lot of brown pelicans out on, you know, the breeding seasons, out on the islands. It can be difficult to tell if they are birds that were affected by the spill or if they may be birds that have moved in from other areas.
We know there were immediate mortalities of a lot of brown pelicans and other birds that are even more rare like Wilson's plover. But what we don't know is how the long-term chronic effects will play out. We do see in some other parts of the system - in marshes and in the deep-sea corals - that some of the changes that are being seen have taken a little while to manifest.
CONAN: Such as?
DRISCOLL: Well, for marshes there were declines in large spiders. Researcher Linda Hooper-Bui found almost no large spiders in oiled marsh in 2010, but then began to notice declines of other insects in the summer of 2012.
CONAN: And that might not seem like a big deal, but it is.
DRISCOLL: But they're bird food, from my perspective. So you know, there have been similar - what they call trophic level effects, cascading effects where a part of the ecosystem is affected, and then it may later have an effect on a different, you know, animal or species down the road.
And so similar to what we saw with the herring crash in - after the Exxon Valdez, but many years after we are still looking out for what might be population problems that go up the food chain over time. This is a living disaster, and we are hoping with the BP trial starting that BP will finally start to pay for the damage that it's done in the Gulf of Mexico.
CONAN: And as you assess it, it's interesting that because of the trial, some of this information is being locked up. It's proprietary?
DRISCOLL: Yes, it is. The natural resources damage assessment is a legal process by which the government does various research and studies to try to assess the damage to our natural resources and to hold the responsible parties accountable. Because that is a legal process, the information is held from the public for anywhere from years to decades. So until either there is a settlement or the lawsuit is finalized, those data will not be available to scientists.
CONAN: And that could be a while. How long do you think it's going to be before you're going to have a realistic estimate of what the damage was?
DRISCOLL: Actually, I think it will be decades because some of the answers about the acute effects may be released - the Fish and Wildlife Service has done studies, and those studies may be released once the settlements are done or the trial is finished. However, what we know from other spills and other ecosystems is that there will be oil in this environment for decades to come, and there could be effects for decades to come.
Regardless of what the settlements or penalties are now, we need as a nation and as a government and a legal system to be prepared to come back to the responsible parties, including BP, to ask them to pay for damages if further damages are discovered in the future.
CONAN: We're talking about the effects of the oil spill as the BP trial continues. You're listening to TALK OF THE NATION from NPR News.
And Debbie Elliott, our correspondent in NPR, who's been covering this, is still with us. We're talking with Melanie Driscoll of the National Audubon Society. What would you be most worried about?
DRISCOLL: We're frankly the most worried about species that are the most at risk because they spend most of their time in the heavily oiled zone and that already are under a tremendous amount of stress, either from other threats or because they have very small populations.
One prime example is the Wilson's plover. It's a small shorebird that nests and lives - even some of them winter - along the Gulf Coast. A large proportion of their population is on the Gulf of Mexico. They were really breeding at the center of the spill. And of the birds that one small - one scientific team captured during the oil spill, 44 percent of the birds captured had some oil on them.
So we know that their exposure was potentially great. They feed in the oiled zone where we still, to this day, have oil coming up and - in the intertidal zone and affecting their food supply. And there are only about 6,000 of these birds worldwide. So they're already at low populations. They're already stressed and threatened, and they're spending all of their time where the oil is still coming up. And we still see BP cruise cleaning that oil up to this day.
CONAN: Well, thanks very much for being with us.
DRISCOLL: Thank you very much, Neal.
CONAN: Again, Melanie Driscoll is the National Audubon Society's director of bird conservation for the Gulf of Mexico and the Mississippi Flyway. Let's see if we can get another caller in, and this is Bill, Bill with us from Panama City in Florida.
BILL: Yeah. I used to fish, and I know a fair amount of commercial fishermen that did a lot of snapper fishing. That's the largest red snapper spawning ground in the world. And a lot of them tell me that fishing there is poor, and you can see the effects of it here in Florida because the number of red snapper that are here now is incredible, and I think that's just because they don't have a place to go there.
Now, I know most people look at the, you know, the effects of the oil, but we - the effects of people that here now can fish for red snapper is going to have a huge impact because most of the people had no access to those fish that now they can fish them till they're gone, and they'll do it. You know, listen to people around here, they really don't take into account the fact that those fish, you know, were out there. (Unintelligible) catch a 30 pound red snapper here. That's almost unheard of.
CONAN: It's interesting, Bill. You'll catch them until their gone. Debbie Elliott, one thing this does remind us of, again, is the fragility of systems that seemed so robust.
ELLIOTT: Right. And you know what has occurred to me listening to people call in and describe their personal experiences is we are all at such - you know, our awareness has changed now. Every time we're out on the water, on the beach or out fishing, anything we see now, we think in the back of our minds, are this normal or is this something that's different because of the oil spill? There's this heightened awareness and it's interesting to watch. You know, people are paying a lot closer attention to what is going on in the environment around them, I think.
CONAN: Debbie Elliott, thanks as always for your time.
ELLIOTT: Thank you, Neal.
CONAN: Debbie Elliott, NPR national correspondent, with us from her home base in Orange Beach, Alabama. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.