x Abu Dhabi, UAEWednesday 24 January 2018

Gulf of Mexico oil spill 'is Katrina all over again'

Louisiana fishermen say Mr Obama is facing his own Katrina-like challenge with the oil spill expected to wreak economic and environmental devastation on the local fishing industry and coastal marshlands.

VENICE, Louisiana // Curt Pannagl, an oyster broker, was unimpressed by the US president Barack Obama's decision to visit the Louisiana coast yesterday where people were waiting nervously for an advancing oil slick in the Gulf of Mexico to hit land. "What's he going to do apart from print money?" said Mr Pannagl, 49, a third-generation oysterman who first started selling the shellfish when he was 13 and who relied on the business to put him through college.

The wait for the oil spill to hit land has assumed greater urgency in recent days because strong winds have added velocity to the rapidly-growing slick and confined clean-up boats to harbour. Late yesterday, the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration (NOAA) said it was closing commercial and recreational fishing from Louisiana to parts of the Florida Panhandle because of the spill. The NOAA said the closure would begin immediately and last for at least 10 days.

Federal engineers have been unable to stop the flow of about 5,000 barrels of oil a day, according to their estimates, from more than a kilometre underwater after an oil rig contracted by BP, the UK-based oil company, exploded on April 20. BP's chairman, Lamar McKay, said yesterday the explosion was caused by "a failed piece of equipment". The rig, about 64km off Louisiana's coast, sank two days later, leaving 11 people missing, presumed dead.

Mr Obama campaigned on the widespread perception that George W Bush, when he was president five years ago, failed to effectively respond to devastation left by Hurricane Katrina on New Orleans. But it was unclear whether yesterday's visit would stop the growing discontent of some Louisiana fishermen, who speak of Mr Obama facing his own Katrina-like challenge with the oil spill expected to wreak economic and environmental devastation on the local fishing industry and coastal marshlands.

Mr Obama was already under attack after he signalled his willingness to allow more offshore oil drilling. Environmentalists have taken to saying "Spill baby, spill" in a rendering of the right-wing chant "Drill, baby drill". BP faces growing criticism from federal and state officials. "We continue to be concerned about BP's ability to respond to this incident," said Bobby Jindal, the governor of Louisiana. "We are past the point of waiting for any clean-up plans from BP" or the US coastguard's incident commander.

In the first few days after the incident, the US coastguard accepted BP's efforts to stop the oil spill while attention was focused on the explosion's casualties. But 10 days later, BP was still battling to contain the oil in an operation that could cost it billions of dollars and untold damage to its reputation. Ken Salazar, the US interior secretary, had said he told BP executives "to work harder and faster and smarter to get the job done".

Tony Hayward, BP's chief executive, was expected to return to Louisiana today as more residents questioned the company's response. His visit to the region last week went relatively unnoticed because there was greater hope then the oil flow would stop sooner. BP is self-insured and has assumed responsibility for the clean-up and compensation. But few people held out much hope for a speedy resolution given the conditions that engineers were grappling with.

David Legnon, who runs his own charter fishing boat company in Venice, was more sanguine about BP's difficulties because he worked in the oil industry for several years. He said many of the tourists who visit the region's wetlands charter boats to fish and to see the wide array of birds and wildlife. "What more can BP do? They need to stop the oil leaking because until that's done, we don't even know what we're going to be dealing with," he said.

"Things feel weirdly calm right now, like the calm before the hurricane," he said while looking over the boats confined to Venice's marina on Saturday because of the strong winds. But many of his colleagues were unhappy with BP even though the company had hired their boats to go out and lay boom lines on Friday to try to prevent oil from reaching the shore. "BP was paying a couple of hundred dollars over what these guys would make from fishing, but it seems things were very badly organised," Mr Legnon said. "BP eventually came out with about 20 contracts for the guys even though there were about 400 of them and had to go off and photo-copy them."

Along with Louisiana, Alabama, Mississippi and Florida were also fearfully waiting for the oil spill's landfall. In Louisiana alone, the commercial fishing industry is worth around $2.4 billion (Dh8.8bn), according to the state's seafood promotion and marketing board. sdevi@thenational.ae