The oil has gone? Tell that to Gulf coast residents

Rupert Cornwell
Friday 06 August 2010 00:00 BST

After 107 days, the rogue well may officially be sealed, and a government report says three-quarters of the oil that escaped has already gone.

But tell that to residents of the Gulf, for whom the good news has almost certainly come far too late to save a ruined tourist summer - and who have heard too many over-optimistic estimates over the last three months to to take this one at face value now.

Part of the scepticism reflects the evidence of their eyes. The authorities have allowed commercial fishing to restart along the coast, fish and shellfish have been pronounced healthy. But the oil still pops up everywhere. Globs of it drift into creeks, small layers of the stuff are buried beneath the sand of ostensibly pristine beaches. For all the official assurances about how much has evaporated in the warm Gulf waters, or been consumed by Stakhanovite bacteria, noone knows how much oil remains on the seabed - possibly threatening shrimp, crab and other larvae on which future catches depend – or in the form of plumes below the surface.

And though only a quarter of the 4.9m barrels reckoned to have leaked is still unaccounted, that represents the equivalent of five Exxon Valdez, the tanker whose spill caused an environmental catastrophe in Alaska in 1989.

"There are still boats out there every day working, finding turtles with oil on them and seeing grass lines with oil in it," charter boat captain Randy Boggs, of Orange Beach in Alabama, told the Associated Press. "All the oil isn't accounted for. There are millions of pounds of tar balls and oil on the bottom." Others are uncertain about the long term effects of the chemical dispersants used to get rid of surface oil.

Harry 'Cho-cho' Cherami, a 59-year-old shrimper from grand Isle, Louisiana who grew up on the deck of his father's shrimp boat, is also sceptical of the good news. "I don't think we've finished with this," he said in Grand Isle, La. "We haven't really started to deal with it yet. We don't know what effect it's going to have on our seafood in the long run."

BP and the US authorities pledge to stay on the job until the clean up is complete, and the Gulf population can only hope they will be as good as their word. The company has speeded up procedures for claims from its $20bn fund, but two thirds of claims are still outstanding, largely for lack of supporting paperwork.

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