NEW ORLEANS - Word that the government is letting BP end its cleanup of the Gulf Coast left many residents seething and fearful over who would monitor or respond to any lingering effects of the worst oil spill in U.S. history.
Estimates that 90 percent of the region's shores have been cleaned of oil from last year's spill belie the sentiments of many locals who are likely to think first of BP when they spot tar balls or mats of weathered oil in the sand. Such waste has washed ashore for years from a variety of sources, but the spill's traumatic aftermath has linked it with BP in the minds of many.
"Everything is just not how it used to be. When you pull a fish up, it doesn't look like it is supposed to look, like they did before" said Ryan Johnson, a fishermen in Pensacola Beach, Fla.
The agreement approved last week by the U.S. Coast Guard ends BP's cleanup responsibility for all but a small fraction of the coast, and marks a shift to restoration efforts that will likely include planting new vegetation and adding new sand to beaches. Under the plan, BP PLC won't be required to clean up oil that washes ashore in the future unless officials can prove it came from the blown-out well that caused the 2010 catastrophe — a link that the company concedes will be harder to establish as time passes and the oil degrades. Still, a top company official said BP is ready to respond to any oil that's deemed its responsibility.
"We are finally at a stage where scientific data and assessment has defined the endpoint for the shoreline cleanup," said Mike Utsler, head of BP's Gulf Coast Restoration Organization. "That endpoint can be reopened."
Such assurances are of little comfort to officials around the region who think that the Coast Guard failed to protect their interests. Louisiana refused to sign off on the cleanup plan, though the Coast Guard said it would carry it out regardless of the state's objections. Among the state's chief concerns is what they perceived as a lack of long-term monitoring required by the plan.
"This has been a unilateral decision. We were supposed to work to make it right, BP said they would make it right," said John Young, the president of Jefferson Parish, a coastal area that was hit hard by the spill. "It's not clean. There are still tar mats and tar balls appearing."
Alabama Attorney General Luther Strange said the plan concerns him and he hasn't decided whether he will go to court to force BP to continue cleanup efforts.
The Coast Guard estimates that all but 10 percent of the region has been cleaned of oil from the spill, and says it's time to move onto ecosystem restoration. BP has set aside $1 billion for projects to restore areas damaged by the spill that began on April 20, 2010, when the Deepwater Horizon drilling rig exploded, killing 11 workers.
"There are significant portions of our coastline that are ready to move into the next phase, so that the Gulf Coast can start restoration projects critical to help heal the region," said Coast Guard Capt. Julia Hein, the federal on-scene coordinator.
New oil that shows up on clean shores would be treated "as any kind of oil response," said Coast Guard spokeswoman Lt. Suzanne Kerver. Officials would try to determine where it came from. If a link to BP's now-plugged Macondo well was found, then the Coast Guard would ask the oil giant to clean it up. In these cases, it would take a few days to collect samples of oil reported washing ashore and send it to its testing lab in Connecticut to determine the source of the oil.
But the truth is that scores of people just aren't ready or willing to move on, and will blame BP for years to come when new ecological problems pop up in the Gulf — regardless of what the origin may turn out to be.
"It may be the end for them, but we're at the end of our rope. Families are suffering; businesses are suffering. It's horrible. We can't catch a fish to save our soul," said Kevin Heier, a 40-year-old commercial fisherman in Hopedale, La.
In Gulfport, Miss., fourth-generation oyster and shrimp fisherman Rudy Toler said he doesn't think it's time to scale back the cleanup. The 31-year-old is convinced the Gulf is contaminated by the spill. He blames BP for the shrimp and oysters he says he's not catching.
"It doesn't surprise me that the government is going to let BP off the hook, because they've let them off the hook before," Toler said Wednesday. "The president said we would be made whole. I think he's turning his back on us too."
He said oil can still be found. "I've never seen these problems before. I've been going out on the water for more than 20 years and I've never seen oil before, even though there is natural seepage."
Similar sentiments are found on Pensacola Beach in Florida, where locals are uneasy even though things look gorgeous this time of year. Kenneth Collins, who rents fishing poles to tourists and spends his days with local fishermen at the Pensacola Beach pier claimed that red fish, cobia, grouper and other fish caught off the pier have oily deposits in their intestines when they are carved up for cleaning
"It's not OK at all. We aren't scientists or anything but we are out there all the time and we can tell things aren't right," he said.