GRAND ISLE, Louisiana (Reuters) - A year after the worst U.S. offshore oil spill swamped the Gulf coast with petroleum and misery, Louisiana officials on Wednesday declared the hard-hit region reborn.
It is still too early to know the long-term damage to the Gulf’s rich and complex ecosystem. But, so far, predictions made at the height of the spill of an impending environmental Armageddon appear overstated.
“The bottom line is there is a lot of work that needs to be done, but the vast majority of our waters are clean, open and ready for our fishermen,” said Louisiana’s Republican Governor Bobby Jindal at a ceremony to mark the event’s anniversary.
“We’re inviting America to come down here, have a great time, enjoy our seafood and be part of the greatest rebirth you will ever see,” Jindal said.
It started on April 20, 2010, when an explosion aboard the Deepwater Horizon drilling rig killed 11 workers and released nearly 5 million barrels of oil that fouled the shorelines of four Gulf Coast states.
Louisiana bore the brunt of the BP Plc spill’s damage -- about 650 miles of its coastline were oiled, versus 174 miles in Florida, 159 miles in Mississippi and 90 miles in Alabama.
On Grand Isle, a barrier island at the mouth of Barataria Bay which was heavily oiled, business is returning to normal after the spill shut down fisheries and caused widespread economic damage.
“Everything’s opening up again now,” said J.T. Hood, a retired offshore platform worker who came down from Donaldson, La., for some offshore fishing. “I can’t wait to get back out there.” When Hood’s son, a commercial fisherman, ventured out recently, he had a respectable haul.
“By 10 a.m. he had 75 speckled trout,” Hood said.
Nearby, local TV chef Kevin Diez whipped up the region’s signature seafood dish -- shrimp etouffee - made with the famous Gulf crustacean.
The spill captured the world’s attention for the 87 days that the Macondo well spewed oil, with live images from the “spill cam” beamed around the world.
In places like Bay Jimmy and Barataria Bay, the oil lingers in the form of brownish tar and dead or dying marsh grasses. And there are still perhaps millions of barrels of oil lingering beneath the ocean surface, the effects of which are largely unknown.
But spill’s effects are far less serious than the 1989 Exxon Valdez disaster, which marred Alaska’s environmentally-fragile coast in heavy oil, said Edward Overton, an ecologist and professor emeritus at Louisiana State University in Baton Rouge.
“I think it’s too early to tell, but I am extremely optimistic,” Overton said. “We’re way off what Exxon Valdez was, way off.”
But across the Gulf Coast, residents who still feel the spill’s impact fear they will be abandoned by BP and an army of contractors who swarmed over the coast in the largest oil-spill response in U.S. history, involving nearly 50,000 workers and 7,000 offshore vessels at its height.
“Oil is still washing up on our beaches and on the islands. Now that the media is gone, the BP effort has all but disappeared and so has our livelihood,” said Craig Moore, a charter boat captain in Long Beach, Mississippi.
President Barack Obama, who was criticized as reacting slowly to the spill, said the government will keep pressure on BP, and that “the job isn’t done.”
“We continue to hold BP and other responsible parties fully accountable for the damage they’ve done and the painful losses that they’ve caused,” Obama said in a statement.
BP has paid out about $5 billion in claims for economic losses through a spill fund administered by Kenneth Feinberg. The spill wiped about $70 billion from BP’s market value and spurred it to replace its gaffe-prone British chief executive with an American, Bob Dudley.
“At BP we regret that the accident happened and the impact it has had on the environment of the Gulf Coast and the people living there,” Dudley wrote in an op-ed in the Wall Street Journal.
Additional reporting by Leigh Coleman, writing by Chris Baltimore; editing by Mary Milliken and Vicki Allen