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Good News in Gulf Is Taken With Grain of Salt

There is little celebration on the Gulf Coast.

A flare burns from a drill ship recovering oil from the ruptured British Petroleum oil well over the site in the Gulf of Mexico on June 9, 2010 off the coast of Louisiana. The spill has been called the largest environmental disaster in American history.
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A flare burns from a drill ship recovering oil from the ruptured British Petroleum oil well over the site in the Gulf of Mexico on June 9, 2010 off the coast of Louisiana. The spill has been called the largest environmental disaster in American history.

Even with the news of the tentative plugging of BP’s well, the attention here has largely been focused elsewhere, on a week’s worth of reports, culminating in a federal study released on Wednesday, that the oil in the Gulf of Mexico has been rapidly breaking down and disappearing. These reports have been met, for the most part, with skepticism if not outright distrust.

“It’s not gone,” said George Barisich of the United Commercial Fisherman’s Alliance, who has been making his money these days selling anti-BP T-shirts while also working in the Vessels of Opportunity program, a BP effort created to employ boats to help with the spill cleanup. “Mother Nature didn’t suck it up and spit it out.”

According to federal scientists, about a third of the oil was captured or mitigated by recovery efforts, a quarter naturally dissolved or evaporated and 16 percent was dispersed into microscopic droplets. Just over a quarter remains on or below the surface or has washed ashore, and is either being collected or is degrading naturally.

But many here have grown skeptical after the false assurances following Hurricane Katrina, the early flow rate estimates from BP and federal agencies that turned out to be drastically low and cautionary tales from Alaska about the Exxon Valdez disaster.

The skepticism has been stoked by environmental groups that came to the gulf in droves, lawyers who have been soliciting clients from billboards along roads leading south, a sensation-hungry news media and politicians who have gained broad popularity for thundering in opposition to response officials.

But it has also been fed by continued discoveries of oil clumped in marshes, stratified underneath fresh sand or exposed in the surf at low tide. These sightings do not contradict the scientific reports, which acknowledge millions of gallons of residual oil, but they fuel a broadly held fear: that the oil is merely hidden, liable to appear in a thick, brown ooze at any time.

Federal scientists and coastal residents agree in at least one respect: that the long-term effects of the spill are unknown, and that it is too early to make any conclusions about the true scale of the damage. That uncertainty leads to perhaps the most potent source of skepticism: a deep anxiety about the region’s economic future.

The anxiety begins in the short term. Billions of dollars have poured into the gulf during the response, supporting coastal communities that have had a dreary summer but also enriching contractors involved in the cleanup. Any news of dissipating oil hints at a looming end to that.

BP has promised full compensation, but that has not stopped officials and residents from pursuing lawsuits or seeking billions more in restoration payments.

Just as the problems were being ironed out in the Vessels of Opportunity program, which had left many hurting commercial fishermen on the outside, recoverable oil started disappearing on the surface.

Plenty are worried that there will be no revenue to take the program’s place as it wraps up.

“Even if it is true,” Mr. Barisich said of the reports of dissipating oil, “and I can go catch some shrimp right now, I can’t sell it. I don’t have a dealer or processor who can take it right now.”

Commercial fishing waters are being opened all along the coast, which can be done only with the approval of the Food and Drug Administration and after a variety of tests. But many fishermen, who early on were angered at what they saw as premature closings of water where little oil was visible, are now among the most concerned that the waters are being opened too quickly.

The perception of healthy seafood is nearly as important for the business as the reality, and reassuring consumers can be a long and tricky process.

“Alaska, it took them almost five years to overcome their perception challenges,” said Ewell Smith, the executive director of the Louisiana Seafood Promotion and Marketing Board.

And while BP has recently highlighted its efforts to speed up the claims process, more than two-thirds of claims have not been paid, mostly because adjusters are waiting on documentation that may be hard to come by for many in the largely cash-driven fishing business.

But the economic worries still come back to a fundamental disagreement: many residents simply do not believe that the oil is going away anytime soon, whatever scientists are saying.

“Smell that?” asked Forrest A. Travirca III, driving along the beach at Port Fourchon, La., on Monday. He climbed out of his cart and waded into the surf, where low tide had exposed mud flats, thick and dark with oil to a depth of three inches. The sight could be found up and down the beach.

Mr. Travirca, the field inspector for the Edward Wisner Donation, a nonprofit land trust, said that the oil had probably accumulated since late May, left by subcontracted cleanup crews that had done an incomplete job.

Both BP and federal response officials repeat that the cleanup will not be over until the beaches and marshes are clean, and that crews will not leave until local officials are satisfied. Mr. Travirca said the cleanup had been improving and gave high marks to the Coast Guard.

But the oil-caked mud flats provoked concern about the oil that may be unseen, buried all along the beach or sitting on the seabed offshore. Federal scientists said they had found that oil was not gathering on the floor of the gulf, but Mr. Travirca said he had a hard time believing that.

Fishermen are also keenly concerned about shrimp, crab and finfish larvae. If the larvae are in jeopardy, it may not be known until future fishing seasons, even after the cleanup ends.

Scientists have found hydrocarbons and possibly dispersant in samples of crab and fish larvae, but say that it is premature to draw any conclusions about the long-term effects.

That uncertainty is not reassuring, and to many here it is, in its own way, proof of deception. Response officials acknowledge that the use of dispersants was a trade-off, exposing marine life to risk but preventing a thorough oiling of the beaches and fragile marshes. And for such a huge spill, it has had a relatively small coastal impact.

But others say it was also convenient that the dispersant kept most of the oil out of public view.

“I think probably in the long term the application of the dispersants, at least at the wellhead, probably was the right thing to do,” said Dr. William E. Hawkins, director of the Gulf Coast Research Laboratory of the University of Southern Mississippi. “But cynically I might say BP might have done it for the wrong reasons.”

This story originally appeared in the The New York Times

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