Gulf of Mexico oil spill has countless livelihoods in limbo
When Kenny LeFebvre is out of work, as he is because of the growing oil spill in the Gulf of Mexico, so are the two men who help him haul glistening blue crabs from the waters he has fished since he quit school at 14. So are his sister and brother-in-law, who sell him bait, buy back the catch, pack it up, then resell it to buyers who put it on dinner tables in Maryland.
And so are thousands of other families just like theirs in some of the world's richest fishing grounds, livelihoods in limbo as winds from exactly the wrong direction -- the southeast -- threaten to push an oil slick the size of Puerto Rico ever closer to the fragile, fingerlike bayous.
"I don't know what I'll do. I really don't," said LeFebvre, who unloaded 2,100 pounds of crab about 20 minutes before natural resource officials ordered the fishing zones in St. Bernard Parish closed. There was no sign of oil yet. Not even a whiff in the breeze. And the crabs had just started biting.
Now, the 600 traps LeFebvre dropped Friday morning will sit uncollected for weeks, he figures. Maybe months. Maybe years. How he will support six children, ages 9 to 18, is beyond his ability to imagine.
"I'm 35. I ain't never drove a nail in my life. This is what I know, right here," he says. "We starved all winter, and we was just getting to where we was making money and getting back on our feet."
More than birds and fish lie in the path of the massive oil slick threatening the Gulf Coast from Florida to Texas: A centuries-old way of life that's endured dozens of hurricanes is now facing the possibility of environmental and economic disaster.
Water sustains the region's economy like blood in the body. Commercial and sport fishing businesses support dock services, tackle shops and gas stations. Restaurants are Louisiana's largest private-sector employer, with 140,000 workers and a direct annual economic impact of $5 billion. Wendy Waren, vice president of the Louisiana Restaurant Association, says nearly two-thirds of them serve some type of seafood.
Then there are some of the busiest shipping ports in the world, moving oil from offshore rigs up the Mississippi River and Midwestern grain out to sea to feed the rest of the world.
All are vital to world commerce and have a potential impact on consumer pocketbooks.
The Port of Gulfport in Mississippi is the nation's second-largest importer of green fruit, with Central American bananas from Chiquita and Dole accounting for 74 percent of its imported cargo in 2007.
The Port of New Orleans handled 73 millions tons of cargo in 2008, including coffee from South America and steel from Japan, Russia, Brazil and Mexico. Three cruise ships also dock there, handling more than 600,000 passengers a year.
Upriver is the Port of South Louisiana, the nation's busiest with 224 million tons of cargo a year -- mostly grain and other agricultural commodities, and chemicals from the scores of plants that line the river.
When a tanker and a tugboat collided near New Orleans two years ago, oil cascaded downriver and some 200 ships stacked up, unable to move for several days while the Coast Guard had the vessels scrubbed. Millions of dollars were lost.
About 120 miles away in Ocean Springs, Miss., Paul Nettles worries about losses of his own. He and his partners at South Coast Paddling Co. started their kayaking business last August, taking tourists through inland salt marshes and to some of the barrier islands.
"We just spent all year advertising and marketing, and it's just now starting to pay off. If the whole summer is a wash, it could be devastating," says Nettles, 38, preparing to take a dozen highway contractors on a three-hour tour of Old Fort Bayou.
On tiny Grand Isle, which boasts Louisiana's only white sand beaches, the manager of the Island Paradise Suites is also fretting about what could happen this summer. Every weekend, says manager Penny Benton, there's a fishing rodeo that supports the bait shops, eateries and motels. The big one is the tarpon rodeo at the end of July, when so many people pack onto the 6-mile-long island that it takes two hours to drive from one end to the other.
"My worst fear is nobody wanting to come down because they can't fish, they can't shrimp, they can't do anything," says Benton, 45, who counts on her job at her aunt's inn to support her 8- and 12-year-old children. "I don't even want to think about that. I know I need to, but I don't want to."
"We're just praying. That's all we can do," she says. "Everybody's scared to death."
Recreational fishing draws some 6 million saltwater anglers a year, supports more than 300,000 jobs and contributes $41 billion dollars annually to the Gulf Coast economy, according to the American Sportfishing Association.
Louisiana is also America's top producer of shrimp, oysters, crabs, crawfish and alligators, shipping out 30 percent all the seafood in the lower 48 states, says Ewell Smith, executive director of the Louisiana Seafood Promotion and Marketing Board. That adds up to an economic impact of $2.4 billion a year.
Louisiana fishermen landed 90.4 million pounds of shrimp in 2008, or 44 percent of U.S. production, and 207 million pounds of oysters, or 36 percent of the U.S. total, Smith says. Any hiccup in production opens the door to foreign competition, which already accounts for 80 percent of the nation's seafood consumption.
Just as dangerous? Public perception.
The industry could face consumer misconceptions that all Louisiana products are unsafe, Smith says, even though any contaminated areas will be closed.
"The consumer needs to understand we will still have seafood production and have safe seafood production," he says.
Russell Prats, who owns Tino Mones Seafood in Delacroix, sells crabs to processors in Alabama. If he can't supply them, they will look elsewhere, maybe to imports. And they may not come back.
"Thousands and thousands of people's lives is at stake here. If that oil comes down and they shut us down, we're out of business," Prats says.
The fishing communities in lower St. Bernard Parish are tiny, quiet villages along a two-lane road, surrounded by marshes. Modest houses sit high on stilts, while travel trailers sit parked in the concrete foundations of homes destroyed by Hurricane Katrina nearly five years ago. Here, white rubber boots are standard footwear, and the loudest noises come from idling boat engines, screaming seagulls and the unrelenting wind.
"How many years is it going to take to clean this up?" wonders fisherman Nicky Alfonso, unloading crates of crabs from his boat on Bayou Terre-aux-Boeufs. "How many years is it going to take for testing on the seafood, before it gets out of their systems? That's something none of us know."
"It's like a hurricane coming: You sit and you wait and see what's gonna happen," he says.
It's gotten steadily harder to make a living here, says 75-year-old Howard Serigne, a lifelong fisherman and a descendant of the Canary Islands settlers who moved into this part of Louisiana in the 1700s.
Everyone in Serigne's family makes a living on the water, but they used to have more options. Once upon a time, he says, they could trap fur-bearing animals like otter and nutria, and sell the pelts. They could catch and sell species of fish now available only to sport fishermen. The number of boats on the water has grown, and the amount of land protecting the fisheries has shrunk.
Serigne had 160 acres in Plaquemines Parish and 64 in St. Bernard before Katrina; now, he says, there's barely any land left.
Larry McKinney, director of the Harte Research Institute for Gulf of Mexico Studies in Corpus Christi, Texas, says flood control levees have diverted the sediment that builds wetlands across the gulf, while canals cut to reach oil and gas production sites have aggravated erosion. Mineral extraction is causing subsidence, or the gradual lowering of the land.
The wetlands are "in a state of rapid degradation," McKinney says, with 80 percent of the nation's coastal land loss occurring in Louisiana. The state loses up to 25,000 acres, per year, he says -- the equivalent of a football field every 20 minutes.
And now this.
"A hurricane takes your house, and it messes up the marsh and that, but it heals pretty quick," says fisherman Tracy Alfonso. "But nobody knows what's gonna happen with the oil. It's never happened before.
"It's like a farmer that can't grow a crop," he says. "How long can you last without work, before they take your house and your car or whatever you work with?"
Wayne and Lisa Ledet, who own Doris' Seafood in Delacroix, earn $500-$1,000 a day when the fishing is good, packing up crabs, oysters and shrimp for buyers in Baltimore. They started their business after Katrina, invested more than $500,000 and just bought an $80,000 ice machine. Some $15,000 worth of bait will go unused because the fishermen are grounded.
Now, the couple is looking at the prospect of taking food stamps to get by. If the shutdown lasts more than a few weeks, they won't be able to pay their bills.
"That's it," Wayne says. "It's gonna be over with."
His 21-year-old nephew Shawn Platt, who dropped out of junior high to become a fisherman, wonders how his growing family will survive.
"I don't know how to do nothing else," he says. "I got a baby gonna be born any day now, and I don't know what I'm gonna do."
Fishing Closed By Oil Spill: Feds Ban Commercial And Recreational Fishing From Louisiana To Florida
BP's chairman defended his company's safety record and said Sunday that "a failed piece of equipment" was to blame for a massive oil spill along the Gulf Coast, where President Barack Obama was headed for a firsthand update on the slick creeping toward American shores.
BP PLC chairman Lamar McKay told ABC's "This Week" that he can't say when the well a mile beneath the sea might be plugged. But he said he believes a 74-ton metal and concrete box - which a company spokesman said was 40 feet tall, 24 feet wide and 14 feet deep - could be placed over the well on the ocean floor in six to eight days.
McKay said BP officials are still working to activate a "blowout preventer" mechanism meant to seal off the geyser of oil.
"And as you can imagine, this is like doing open-heart surgery at 5,000 feet, with – in the dark, with robot-controlled submarines," McKay said.
Company spokesman Bill Salvin said Sunday that the first of three boxes is nearly done. It's being built in Port Fourchon, La., by a company called Wild Well Control.
Another spokesman, Steve Rinehart, said the oil will flow into the chamber and then be sucked through a tube into a tanker ship at the surface.
BP did not build the containment devices before the spill because it "seemed inconceivable" the blowout preventer would fail, Rinehart said.
"I don't think anybody foresaw the circumstance that we're faced with now," he said. "The blowout preventer was the main line of defense against this type of incident, and it failed."
Salvin said McKay was talking about the blowout preventer as the failed equipment that caused the April 20 explosion of the Deepwater Horizon rig, which killed 11 people. The blowout preventer typically activates after a blast or other event to cut off any oil that may spill.
The cause of the blast remains undetermined, and Salvin said "we're not ruling anything out." The rig was operated by BP PLC and owned by Transocean Ltd.
Crews have had little success stemming the flow from the ruptured well on the sea floor off Louisiana or removing oil from the surface by skimming it, burning it or dispersing it with chemicals. The churning slick of dense, rust-colored oil is now roughly the size of Puerto Rico.
Federal authorities banned commercial and recreational fishing in a large stretch of water off four states, from the mouth of the Mississippi River off Louisiana to western parts of the Florida Panhandle.
The National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration said the closure would last for at least 10 days and was aimed at keeping seafood safe. Government scientists were taking samples from waters near the spill to determine whether there is any danger.
Long tendrils of oil sheen made their way into South Pass, a major channel through the salt marshes of Louisiana's southeastern bootheel that is a breeding ground for crab, oysters, shrimp, redfish and other seafood.
Venice charter boat captain Bob Kenney lamented that there was no boom in the water to corral the oil, and said BP was "pretty much over their head in the deep water."
"It's like a slow version of Katrina," he added. "My kids will be talking about the effect of this when they're my age."
There is growing criticism that the government and oil company BP PLC should have done more to stave off the disaster, which has cast a pall over the region's economy and fragile environment.
The White House dispatched two Cabinet members to make the rounds on the Sunday television talk shows. Homeland Security Secretary Janet Napolitano said on "Fox News Sunday" that the government has taken an "all hands on deck" approach to the spill since the BP oil well ruptured.
Interior Secretary Ken Salazar told NBC's "Meet the Press" that it could take three months before workers attain what he calls the "ultimate solution" to stopping the leak – drilling a relief well more than 3 miles below the ocean floor.
However, the spill has continued to surge toward disastrous proportions, and experts have warned of a possible nightmare scenario. Critical questions linger: Who created the conditions that caused the gusher? Did BP and the government react robustly enough in its early days? And, most important, how can it be stopped before the damage gets worse?
The Coast Guard and BP have said it's nearly impossible to know exactly how much oil has gushed since the blast, though it has been roughly estimated the well was spewing at least 200,000 gallons a day.
Even at that rate, the spill should eclipse the 1989 Exxon Valdez incident as the worst U.S. oil disaster in history in a matter of weeks.
The oil slick over the water's surface appeared to triple in size over the past two days, which could indicate an increase in the rate oil is pouring from the well, according to one analysis of images collected from satellites and reviewed by the University of Miami. While it's hard to judge the volume of oil by satellite because of depth, images do indicate growth, experts said.
"The spill and the spreading is getting so much faster and expanding much quicker than they estimated," said Hans Graber, executive director of the university's Center for Southeastern Tropical Advanced Remote Sensing.
In an exploration plan and environmental impact analysis filed with the federal government in February 2009, BP said it had the capability to handle a "worst-case scenario" at the site, which the document described as a leak of 162,000 barrels per day from an uncontrolled blowout – 6.8 million gallons each day.
And the situation could become far more grave if the oil gets into the Gulf Stream and carries it to the beaches of Florida – and potentially loops around the state's southern tip and up the eastern seaboard. Prime fishing waters, pristine beaches and countless wildlife could be ruined.
"It will be on the East Coast of Florida in almost no time," Graber said. "I don't think we can prevent that. It's more of a question of when rather than if."
Fishermen and boaters want to help but have been hampered by high winds and rough waves that render oil-catching booms largely ineffective. Some coastal Louisiana residents complained that BP was hampering mitigation efforts.
"No, I'm not happy with the protection, but I'm sure the oil company is saving money," said 57-year-old Raymond Schmitt, in Venice preparing his boat to take a French television crew on a tour.
The oil on the surface is just part of the problem. Louisiana State University professor Ed Overton, who heads a federal chemical hazard assessment team for oil spills, worries about a total collapse of the pipe inserted into the well. If that happens, there would be no warning and the resulting gusher could be even more devastating.
"When these things go, they go KABOOM," he said. "If this thing does collapse, we've got a big, big blow."
BP has not said how much oil is beneath the seabed Deepwater Horizon was tapping. A company official, speaking on condition of anonymity because he was not authorized to discuss the volume of reserves, confirmed reports that it was tens of millions of barrels.
Obama has halted any new offshore drilling projects unless rigs have new safeguards to prevent another disaster.
As if to cut off mounting criticism, on Saturday White House spokesman Robert Gibbs posted a blog entitled "The Response to the Oil Spill," laying out the administration's day-by-day response since the explosion, using words like "immediately" and "quickly," and emphasizing that Obama "early on" directed responding agencies to devote every resource to the incident and determining its cause.
In Pass Christian, Miss., 61-year-old Jimmy Rowell, a third-generation shrimp and oyster fisherman, worked on his boat at the harbor and stared out at the choppy waters.
"It's over for us. If this oil comes ashore, it's just over for us," Rowell said angrily, rubbing his forehead. "Nobody wants no oily shrimp."