By BOB HERBERT
Published: May 21, 2010
The warm, soft winds coming in off the gulf have lost their power to soothe. Anxiety is king now — all along the coast.
“You can’t sleep no more; that’s how bad it is,” said John Blanchard, an oyster fisherman whose life has been upended by the monstrous oil spill fouling an enormous swath of the Gulf of Mexico. He shook his head. “My wife and I have got two kids, 2 and 7. We could lose everything we’ve been working all of our lives for.”
I was standing on a gently rocking oyster boat with Mr. Blanchard and several other veteran fishermen who still seemed stunned by the Deepwater Horizon catastrophe. Instead of harvesting oysters, they were out on the water distributing oil retention booms and doing whatever else they could to bolster the coastline’s meager defenses against the oil making its way ominously and relentlessly, like an invading army, toward the area’s delicate and heartbreakingly vulnerable wetlands.
A fisherman named Donny Campo tried to hide his anger with wisecracks, but it didn’t work. “They put us out of work, and now we’re cleaning up their mess,” he said. “Yeah, I’m mad. Some of us have been at this for generations. I’m 46 years old and my son — he’s graduating from high school this week — he was already fishing oysters. There’s a whole way of life at risk here.”
The risks unleashed by the explosion of the Deepwater Horizon oil rig are profound — the latest to be set in motion by the scandalous, rapacious greed of the oil industry and its powerful allies and enablers in government. America is selling its soul for oil.
The vast, sprawling coastal marshes of Louisiana, where the Mississippi River drains into the gulf, are among the finest natural resources to be found anywhere in the world. And they are a positively crucial resource for America. Think shrimp estuaries and bird rookeries and oyster fishing grounds.
These wetlands are one of the nation’s most abundant sources of seafood. And they are indispensable when it comes to the nation’s bird population. Most of the migratory ducks and geese in the United States spend time in the Louisiana wetlands as they travel to and from Latin America.
Think songbirds. Paul Harrison, a specialist on the Mississippi River and its environs at the Environmental Defense Fund, told me that the wetlands are relied on by all 110 neo-tropical migratory songbird species. The migrating season for these beautiful, delicate creatures is right now — as many as 25 million can pass through the area each day.
Already the oil from the nightmare brought to us by BP is making its way into these wetlands, into this natural paradise that belongs not just to the people of Louisiana but to all Americans. Oil is showing up along dozens of miles of the Louisiana coast, including the beaches of Grand Isle, which were ordered closed to the public.
The response of the Obama administration and the general public to this latest outrage at the hands of a giant, politically connected corporation has been embarrassingly tepid. We take our whippings in stride in this country. We behave as though there is nothing we can do about it.
The fact that 11 human beings were killed in the Deepwater Horizon explosion (their bodies never found) has become, at best, an afterthought. BP counts its profits in the billions, and, therefore, it’s important. The 11 men working on the rig were no more important in the current American scheme of things than the oystermen losing their livelihoods along the gulf, or the wildlife doomed to die in an environment fouled by BP’s oil, or the waters that will be left unfit for ordinary families to swim and boat in.
This is the bitter reality of the American present, a period in which big business has cemented an unholy alliance with big government against the interests of ordinary Americans, who, of course, are the great majority of Americans. The great majority of Americans no longer matter.
No one knows how much of BP’s runaway oil will contaminate the gulf coast’s marshes and lakes and bayous and canals, destroying wildlife and fauna — and ruining the hopes and dreams of countless human families. What is known is that whatever oil gets in will be next to impossible to get out. It gets into the soil and the water and the plant life and can’t be scraped off the way you might be able to scrape the oil off of a beach.
It permeates and undermines the ecosystem in much the same way that big corporations have permeated and undermined our political system, with similarly devastating results.