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BP contract workers lay down an absorbent boom to clean up the marsh west of Lake Felicity near Cocodrie, Louisiana.
BP contract workers lay down an absorbent boom to clean up the marsh west of Lake Felicity near Cocodrie, Louisiana.

BP oil strategy just isn't working

Environmental groups say efforts to combat giant slick are highly visible, but ineffectual.

MYRTLE GROVE, Louisiana // Ever since a BP-contracted oil rig blew up in the Gulf of Mexico six weeks ago, Kenneth Chauvin has driven hundreds of miles around the ports and hamlets of the Louisiana coast looking for clean-up work. Far from Washington, where the main talking point on Tuesday was the opening of a criminal investigation into BP, Mr Chauvin was yet again on his quest for employment. He had already completed a four-hour class offered by BP and was issued a yellow card to prove he was certified to work in clean-up operations. But he had yet to receive a call from BP.

"I filled out all the application forms and they said they would call, but they haven't," said Mr Chauvin, 51, who had his own contracting business but found little work in the home construction industry in recent months. "BP says it's only giving the work to local people. Well, we're from New Orleans and we've seen them shipping people in from northern Louisiana to do this work," he said. "We leave the house at 6am every day to drive around but so far, we've gotten nothing," said Mike Raybourn, 45, who is Mr Chauvin's colleague.

As these men were speaking, they were looking at workers setting booms on the dockside for loading on to boats at Myrtle Grove, a small marina in the Mississippi River delta, south of New Orleans. It was only because they had yet to find employment with BP that they felt comfortable speaking with a reporter. BP workers at Myrtle Grove declined to be interviewed, following BP's strict policy of no interaction with the media that is enforced across the oil spill crisis zone in southern Louisiana.

BP has hired more than 20,000 people in the effort to protect the shoreline and clean up the coast. But that has not stopped criticism from organisations such as Greenpeace, the international environmental group, or the National Audubon Society, a US environmental group. They say BP's highly visible efforts have so far been mostly ineffectual. The oil spill remains largely unseen from the coast, with many experts believing it will take more time for its full effects to be felt on the coastal wetland environment.

The Obama administration announced on Tuesday that it had begun civil and criminal investigations into the spill, estimated by some US government scientists at up to 19,000 barrels a day. Eric Holder, the attorney general, said during a visit to New Orleans that he planned to "prosecute to the fullest extent of the law" any person or entity the justice department determined had broken the law. The New York Times said no subpoenas had been issued yet to BP, the owner of the well, and it was unclear whether any had gone to Transocean, which leased the Deepwater Horizon, the drilling rig, to Cameron, the company that manufactured a "blowout preventer" that failed to function after the explosion or to Halliburton, which performed drilling services, such as cementing.

Many questions surround possible regulatory failures and BP's culpability, particularly after a Times report on Sunday cited internal misgivings about its own safety standards by ignoring warnings about design flaws in the well. Many people in Louisiana have lost faith after BP's last attempt to plug the well with mud and other materials called "top kill" was declared a failure on Saturday. Many now believe only a relief well will stop the flow and this was not expected to be completed until August.

In the meantime, BP was engaged in an effort to siphon and contain the oil spill. It was again trying to use a dome to funnel some of the leakage but this time in the hope of avoiding some of the technical difficulties it encountered in a similar effort some three weeks ago. Anger against BP from across the United States has steadily grown, with some media commentators even saying that the president, Barack Obama, faces as big a challenge as Jimmy Carter did during the Iranian hostage crisis, when 52 Americans were held for 444 days until 1981 by Iranian students and militants.

While the political fallout for Mr Obama has yet to reach the levels faced by Mr Carter, who lost the presidency to Ronald Reagan in 1980, there was no doubt his administration was feeling pressure to be seen as responding forcefully to the failure of BP's engineers to stem the spill. @Email:sdevi@thenational.ae

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