Louisiana's oyster industry took another major hit as the AmeriPure Processing Co. announced a temporary halt in operations, and the layoff of forty employees. The company, in Franklin, Louisiana, has a large payroll because it uses an elaborate process of cooling and heating to kill several strains of the dangerous Vibrio bacteria.
Managing Partner Patrick Fahey explained Friday that his company's ability to get "oysters has been severely limited as a result of the spill. This is due to the combination of the precautionary closing of some oyster harvest-areas, and, more to the point, the lack of boat crews to go out and harvest oysters in the areas that are open." Workers are making more money toiling for BP in the on-going clean up of the oil spill, he said. "There's been nothing wrong," Fahey hastened to add, "with oysters that we have been bringing in for the last 60 days. The bed closures are erring on the side of caution. But our business revolves around processing 600 to 800 sacks of oysters a day. For the last 60 days, we've been doing maybe 120 sacks. Our people start work at five in the morning but now they're done about 90 minutes later. We've been fighting the good fight, but we are bleeding money and we decided that we've got to do something. We may be able to start back up in the fall, but we're not sure"
With obvious emotion, Fahey lamented that "The ripple effect of this will be terrible. It is very wrenching. This is the only thing that some of our employees know how to do. It will be tough for them to develop other skill sets to find new jobs." Franklin, a town of around 8,000, some 100 miles west of New Orleans, is best known as a hub for growing sugarcane.
Besides his obvious displeasure with BP, Fahey has a bone to pick with Louisiana's governor Bobby Jindal. Last month, Jindal ordered the diversion of fresh water from the Mississippi River into nearby salt marshes, via spillways. These conduits were originally built to relieve pressure when the Mississippi hits flood stage. In this case, however, they're being used to send a torrent of river water to help push oil away from the coast, as it continues spilling from the deep sea BP well in the Gulf.
Many environmentalists favor this oil-blocking move. But it is anathema to the oyster industry, because fresh water lowers the saline levels that oysters need to survive. "We wrote to Governor Jindal a month ago," Fahey said, "via the Louisiana Oyster Task Force, asking him to send a letter to BP, saying that the state has opened up the spillways because of the oil, and that the state considers BP liable for any damages to the oyster stock. We are flabbergasted that Jindal has not sent that letter."
Jindal also faces growing criticism about his highly touted sand-berm construction project. Critics say it was inadequately researched and will not work. There are also unsubstantiated inferences of cronyism in the awarding of huge no-bid contracts. But in the absence of any other plan -- and the apparent lack of a definitive spill-recovery leader -- many Louisianans cling to the berm as an article of faith. Hopes hang heavy on its success, and criticism of it is equated with heresy -- or, at minimum, with yet more ineffectual dithering. Accordingly, Jindal's philosophic reprisal of Theodore Roosevelt's defiant dictum, "while Congress debated, I took Panama," is striking a chord with Louisiana's frustrated populace. So is berm bullishness – along with a call for the resignation of Coast Guard Admiral Thad Allen -- on the part of Plaquemines Parish president Billy Nungesser.
But Leonard Bahr, a former Louisiana State University marine sciences faculty member and coastal policy adviser, calls the berm project "a $350 million boondoggle supported by dredging interests that would dig 11.2 Superdome Equivalents of (limited) sand from the delta we're trying to save -- to build temporary barriers against oil that's already in the marshes. Chalk this up as another finger in the eye of science while wool is pulled over the eyes of the public."
In a more dispassionate tone, Robert Young -- professor of coastal geology at Western North Carolina University, and director of the Program for the Study of Developed Shorelines – cited "a number of problems with the efficacy of the project and the design -- what little design we've seen.... They're going to begin to erode as soon as they've been constructed, and there are just a lot of missing details to help us understand how effective they would be at trapping the oil."
Nungesser, meanwhile, is taking some criticism for a perceived conflict of interest. He owns a share in a marina that is currently being refurbished at BP's expense. Last year, Nungesser dismissed somewhat similar assertions as "a political witch hunt."
Given Nungesser's local popularity, his new status as a national media darling, and even calls that he should run for president, this line seems unlikely to gain any traction. Such lack of interest in the possibility of politics as usual is fueled by local resentment towards the federal moratorium on oil drilling. If the ban stays in place, it is estimated that at least 10,000 jobs will be lost. Rig workers would be covered by BP, but not people employed by ancillary service companies. For a region that has already lost much of its seafood industry, this would amount to a second catastrophic blow.
Members of Louisiana's congressional delegation are seeking to establish some middle ground that will also address environmental concerns about the safety of continued drilling. As the leak keeps spewing, oil has advanced further into Barataria Bay, once among Louisiana's most bountiful fishing areas. But in an otherwise bleak scenario there is one bit of good news, although it is somewhat qualified. The waters east of Saint Bernard Parish -- some 40 miles east of New Orleans -- have received a clean bill of health, and are open again to commercial fishing. "Normally, " said Patrick Fahey, "we'd get some very good oysters over there. But, again, everyone's working for BP now. I'm told that there are days when not even one single boat goes out to harvest that crop."
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