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 fisherman in Pensacola Beach.
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."
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 on to 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.
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.
But on Pensacola Beach, locals remain uneasy. 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 okay 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.
Elsewhere along the gulf, the sentiments are shared.
"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.