Everyone gathered for the town hall meeting had been repeatedly instructed to show civility to the gentlemen from BP and the federal government. These fine folks had made time in their busy schedules to come to a school gymnasium on a Tuesday night in Plaquemines Parish, Louisiana, one of many coastal communities where brown poison was slithering through the marshes, part of what has come to be described as the largest environmental disaster in US history.
"Speak to others the way you would want to be spoken to," the chair of the meeting pleaded one last time before opening the floor for questions.
And for a while the crowd, mostly made up of fishing families, showed remarkable restraint. They listened patiently to Larry Thomas, a genial BP public relations flack, as he told them that he was committed to "doing better" to process their claims for lost revenue—then passed all the details off to a markedly less friendly subcontractor. They heard out the suit from the Environmental Protection Agency as he informed them that, contrary to what they had read about the lack of testing and the product being banned in Britain, the chemical dispersant being sprayed on the oil was really perfectly safe.
But patience started running out by the third time Ed Stanton, a Coast Guard captain, took to the podium to reassure them that "the Coast Guard intends to make sure that BP cleans it up."
"Put it in writing!" someone shouted out. By now the air-conditioning had shut itself off and the coolers of Budweiser were running low. A shrimper named Matt O’Brien approached the mic. "We don’t need to hear this anymore," he declared, hands on hips. It didn’t matter what assurances they were offered because, he explained, "we just don’t trust you guys!" And with that, such a loud cheer rose up from the bleachers you’d have thought the Oilers (the school’s unfortunate name for its sports teams) had scored a touchdown.
The showdown was cathartic, if nothing else. For weeks residents had been subjected to a barrage of pep talks and extravagant promises coming from Washington, Houston and London. Every time they turned on their TVs, there was the BP boss, Tony Hayward, offering his solemn word that he would "make it right." Or else it was President Obama expressing his absolute confidence that his administration would "leave the Gulf Coast in better shape than it was before," that he was "making sure" it "comes back even stronger than it was before this crisis."
It all sounded great. But for people whose livelihoods put them in intimate contact with the delicate chemistry of the wetlands, it also sounded absurd. Once the oil coats the base of the marsh grass, as it had already done just a few miles away, no miracle machine or chemical concoction could safely get it out. You can skim oil off the surface of open water, and you can rake it off a sandy beach, but an oiled marsh just sits there, slowly dying. The larvae of countless species for which the marsh is a spawning ground—shrimp, crab, oysters and fin fish—will be poisoned.
It was already happening. Earlier that day, I traveled through nearby marshes in a shallow-water boat. Fish were jumping in waters encircled by white boom, the strips of thick cotton and mesh BP is using to soak up the oil. The circle of fouled material seemed to be tightening around the fish like a noose. Nearby, a red-winged blackbird perched atop a seven-foot blade of oil-contaminated marsh grass. Death was creeping up the cane; the small bird may as well have been standing on a lighted stick of dynamite.