BP’s Relief Payment Checks Bouncing

Despite massive clean-up efforts, will the Gulf ever be the same?

“I don’t know why they keep saying there is no oil. There is oil here.” Teri, a young mom, is just letting out the frustration that so many who live near and love the Gulf are feeling. She showed me a conch shell filled with oil that her daughter found, except with her Southern accent she pronounces it “awl.”

“I saw some dead fish and a dead bird today. I told the BP workers, but they didn’t do anything.”

The BP crews are everywhere, and they are feeling the scorn of the locals. They do always seem to be on break, but that is not their fault. OSHA is right there on sight supervising. With temperatures over 90 degrees, the crews are often required to rest 40 minutes after just 20 minutes work. That’s on top of the hour lunch break — all for a minimum salary of $18 an hour. Nice work if you can get it.[SIGNUP]

They don’t get a lot of credit, but the workers are actually doing a great job. I traveled beaches from the Mississippi border through Alabama to Panama City, Florida, about 200 miles of Gulf coastline, and I saw a few dozen tar balls and two oil-covered dead fish. But the vast majority of beaches were clean, freshly combed and manicured, and the water was clear.

Still, residents like Teri sense something is wrong. She saw a little oil. She felt a lot more. Buck Blake, a pastor from Baton Rouge, felt it too. He knelt down to pick up some of the black residue lining the coast of Gulf Shores, Alabama. The pastor rubbed it between his fingertips and held it up to his nose. “It doesn’t feel or smell like petroleum, but this was never here before.” Pastor Buck has been bringing his family to Gulf Shores for 20 years. “I don’t think it’s ever going to be the same.”

His daughter-in-law Jen agreed. “It just feels different. The water feels different. The air feels different.” She paused to find the right words and looked down at her two-year-old daughter playing in the sand. “I don’t know. It’s just different.”

Talk of the oil spill dominates every conversation. The top selling t-shirt at the souvenir shops reads “Save the Gulf.” At the ice cream stand on the bayside Boardwalk in Pensacola they advertise hot fudge as a “tar ball” topping.

Most of the businesses and their employees have received some money from BP, and that was before the government took over. Starting today everyone needs to re-apply for a piece of the $20 billion special compensation fund. Lane Schuman, the manager of Horse Feathers, a restaurant and bar on the Boardwalk, says his place is down 80% from last year, with a total loss of $250,000. The last two checks he received from BP bounced. The company stopped payment on the checks while they were in the mail because of the new compensation fund.

Once a business or individual takes a lump sum payment from the fund, they give up the right to sue. The process shields BP from the possibility of the big “pain and suffering” jury awards. It puts the business owners in a real bind because they don’t know the long-term effects from the oil spill. If they take the payment now, what happens next year or the year after?

The vast majority will take the money now to avoid a long legal battle against BP. A battle they may not win. And even if they did win, they’d have to share the award with an attorney. They take the money with the same feeling they share with the young moms and the pastor I met on the Gulf beaches — everything looks better, but something just doesn’t feel right.

That feeling comes from a suspicion that BP and the White House are trying to hide the oil. The oil on the top is skimmed or burned, and the oil, tar and dead wildlife that make it to the beaches is bagged up as soon as one of the thousands of BP crews can get to it.

But 172 million gallons of oil spewed into the Gulf, 10 times more oil than the 1989 Exxon Valdez spill. Where did it all go?

On August 4th, the Obama administration, armed with a National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration report, claimed that “the vast majority” of the oil is gone. Twenty-five percent was burned and skimmed, another 50 percent was taken care of by Mother Nature. Several independent research groups have since called the government report bunk. Oil doesn’t just disappear. They believe 80% of the oil is still out there, in large underwater plumes or sitting on the ocean floor.

At the Gulf bars from Mississippi to the Florida panhandle, local fishermen, many who now do contract skimming work, tell a tale about the chemicals BP put in the water. The fishermen claim the chemicals didn’t disperse the oil, as reported, but weighed it down so it sank to the bottom. “The oil is still out there,” a Panama City fisherman told me. “They just don’t want nobody to see it.”

Oil from the Valdez spill is still coming up on shore today, 21 years later. How many years from now will oil be washing up from the Deep Water Horizon rig explosion?

And that is the uneasy feeling Gulf residents have in their guts — that long after the TV cameras go away and BP stops writing checks, there will be oil. They can’t see the oil now, but they feel it out there in the Gulf and they know it means their way of life has changed for a long, long time.

“Something just doesn’t feel right” is the mantra of the Gulf. If that fisherman’s sense, that mother’s instinct, that pastor’s premonition turns out to be true and BP and the government are just keeping the oil out of sight until the rest of us stop caring, then that would be the real disaster in the Gulf.

LARRY MENDTE writes for The Philly Post every Monday and Thursday. See his previous columns here. To watch his video commentaries, go to wpix.com.