“What’s to celebrate?”
The above question was asked by Kindra Arnesen, the wife of a shrimper from Plaquemines Parish, Louisiana. “My way of life’s over.”
For the first time in 86 days, oil has stopped flowing into the Gulf of Mexico after BP succeeded in capping the blown-out well yesterday afternoon. Officials are cautiously optimistic that this might be the beginning of the end of the worst environmental disaster in American history. But they point out that the cap is only a test to determine whether the well below the seabed is intact.
“It is a positive sign,” President Barack Obama, whose poll numbers have dropped along with BP stock, told reporters. “We’re still in the testing phase.” BP Senior Vice President Kent Wells told CNN that the company was “obviously very encouraged” before adding that they are focused on collecting data and determining their next step. “I don’t want to create a false sense of excitement.”
There’s little worry of that, as news of the cap has been met with hesitant relief at best and hostile incredulity at worst.
“It’s a beautiful thing that it’s shut off,” Shamarr Allen told the Associated Press. “But there’s still a lot of years of cleaning.” Stephon France, in the same report, claimed “It’s a [expletive] lie! I don’t believe they stopped that leak. BP’s trying to make their self look good.”
This is the company, after all, which spent $50 million (US) on an image-saving ad campaign to convince Americans “it won’t happen again”.
Much of the coverage of the debacle has contrasted the statements of politicians and BP executives (whose reassurances, Campbell Robertson and Henry Fountain wrote in The New York Times, were “mocked” by the never-ending footage of the unstoppable oil plume) with those of the residents of Louisiana whose lives have been forever altered.
“It’s kind of like putting a Band-Aid on a dead man in my opinion,” Jeff Ussury told The New York Times. “I started out kind of believing them, but I don’t believe in them at all anymore.”
“There’s still places you can scratch out a day’s work,” Mr. Gercia, a third-generation fisherman, told The Globe and Mail’s David Ebner. “You can survive another day. You’re not putting anything away, you’re just paying bills.”
The juxtaposition of personal stories with the studied statements of officials helps reporters cast themselves as cutting to the chase of the story, of not falling for the official line, even when they must repeat it. But it also serves to remind us of the human dimension of the disaster for people like deckhand Manuel Meyer, who tempers his relief with the knowledge that the clean-up has just begun: “It’s gonna continue for several years… and it ain’t gonna do nothing but get worse before it gets better.”
Even if the cap holds, the damage that has been done to the environment, the lives of people of the Gulf Coast and the already tarnished trust of the public in their government’s ability to hold irresponsible corporations accountable, will take generations to cleanse.