Gulf town vents anger at BP as oil nears


Leoda Bladsacker’s voice shook with emotion as she recalled the 40 families who fled Grand Isle after Hurricane Katrina, never to return. It can’t happen again, even if oil begins oozing down the narrow lanes of this popular fishing and tourist town. Everyone knows that once people leave, they never come back, the City Council member told a BP official.

“Why can’t we just go out there with a supertanker and suck it up?” Bladsacker said of the oil soiling Grand Isle’s beaches and smothering its pelicans, as scores of locals at a community meeting erupted in applause.

The gathering Thursday night, on the eve of President Obama’s visit to the enclave, put a spotlight on the deepening anger, fear, suspicion and rumors coursing through this region as surely as the oil that now stains the waters and shorelines of four states. Will townspeople be forced to evacuate? Will oil poison the air and drinking water? Isn’t the dispersant being used against the oil bound to have long-term health effects?

“Look at Love Canal!” one woman said of the infamous toxic dumpsite in New York. “You look at that and wonder, ‘What the hell is going on here?’ ”

Jason French, the BP representative at the forum held at a Baptist church, nodded patiently as one speaker after another walked to the microphone. Beside him were federal, state and local officials, and a woman with a hand-held bell that she jangled when anyone exceeded the two-minute speaking limit.

Grand Isle is directly in the path of oil moving northeast, and its sandy shores were among the first hit last week by the massive slick. In recent days, heavy oil has penetrated four channels around the island, which could send it into neighboring bays. Oil is also plaguing pelicans on neighboring Grand Terre Island, where several oil-drenched birds were rescued Thursday. Gooey globs have formed along Grand Isle’s sand, and its beaches are closed to swimming.

Over the years the narrow barrier island has been slammed by hurricanes Katrina, Rita and Gustav. Now the oil disaster has emptied the wooden houses that, with summer approaching, should be filled with residents. The fish rodeos that raise money to give scholarships to graduating high school seniors have been canceled. The motels are jammed, not with holiday-makers but with officials and contractors in town to clean up oil.

The town that occupies the island of the same name, with a population of just 1,500, could die if the latest catastrophe drives more people away, said Bladsacker, who has lived all her life in Grand Isle.

Speakers fired off questions: How long it will take to fix the problem? How long it will take financial claims to be settled? How will BP compensate places like Grand Isle for lost incomes and save them from ruin?

Susan Felio-Price compared the crisis to roller-skating uphill. “You keep going and going and you get knocked down. Now suddenly we find ourselves trying to roller-skate up a mountain,” she said.

French acknowledged that there were few clear answers and that much of what is known is not what anyone wants to hear.

There is “significant tar ball” impact on Grand Isle, with more expected, he said. The dispersant has EPA approval and BP has no plans to stop using it, he said to murmurs of disapproval. The time needed to fix the disaster won’t be short, he warned.

“Until that oil stops, we don’t know the length of the cleanup, the scope of the cleanup,” French said.

John Young, the chairman of the council that governs Jefferson Parish, which includes Grand Isle, went further, demanding that Obama approach the spill as if it were a hostile army marching toward the coast. “This is a war and we’re being attacked by an enemy. This oil is going to destroy our way of life if we don’t stop it soon,” Young bellowed from behind a speaker’s table at the front of the room.

Nearly three hours later, the meeting was over. The organizer, Sharon Gauthe, who has set up similar forums in neighboring communities, nudged the crowd to give French a round of applause. They obliged. Then, French, Young, the rest of the officials and the crowd stood and joined hands in prayer.