OLD SHELL BEACH, La. — I asked the sheriff of St. Bernard Parish, Jack Stephens, if he was at all optimistic about BP stopping the gusher of oil that is fouling the Gulf of Mexico in time to prevent a long-term environmental catastrophe in the Louisiana wetlands.
The sheriff was in a small boat, patrolling the waterways that wend their way through the delicate marshes. He thought for a long moment. Oil was already seeping into the marshes, getting into the soil and plant life and coating some of the wildlife.
"I'll tell you the truth," Stephens said. "It may already be too late."
Traveling along the Gulf Coast, past idled boats with names like Big Shrimp and Blessed Assurance, past dead trees and hurricane fortifications and other signs of the area's perpetual vulnerability, you can't help but wonder how a company like BP, with its awful record of incompetence and irresponsibility, was ever allowed to drill for oil a mile deep in the Gulf of Mexico.
It's not as if we didn't know that BP was a menace.
On March 23, 2005, a series of explosions and fires at the BP Texas City refinery killed 15 people and injured 180 others in what was described by investigators as "one of the worst industrial disasters in recent U.S. history." John Bresland, the chairman of the U.S. Chemical Safety Board, reminded us in March, on the fifth anniversary of the tragedy, that an intensive investigation by the board had "found organizational and safety deficiencies at all levels of the BP Corporation."
The Texas City conflagration was just part of BP's execrable pattern. On Oct. 25, 2007, the U.S. Department of Justice issued the following announcement: "British Petroleum and several of its subsidiaries have agreed to pay approximately $373 million in fines and restitution for environmental violations stemming from a fatal explosion at a Texas refinery in March 2005, leaks of crude oil from pipelines in Alaska, and fraud for conspiring to corner the market and manipulate the price of propane carried through Texas pipelines."
Nice outfit, this BP. Anyone who thought this London-based wrecking crew gave a rat's whisker about harming the Gulf of Mexico or threatening the environment of the Louisiana wetlands — or the livelihoods of families living here — has been inhaling way too much of BP's toxic fumes.
Yet there was our government not only giving BP's reprobates the go-ahead to drill for oil a mile deep in the gulf but also handing them a waiver, allowing them to avoid a detailed analysis of the effect of their operations on the surrounding environment. Giving an environmental waiver to a company as contemptuous of the environment as BP shows just whose side the government is on.
BP got off much too easy with the fines it agreed to in 2007.
And for some odd reason, it's being treated much too deferentially now. This crisis has gone on for more than a month, and neither BP nor the Obama administration seems to know what to do.
No one has a handle on how much oil is gushing out of control into the gulf. No one understands the environmental impact of the hundreds of thousands of gallons of chemical dispersants that BP is injecting into the gulf. No one has any idea how far this awful stain on the environment will spread.
President Obama should have taken charge of the response to the oil spill — which he called a "potentially unprecedented" environmental calamity — from jump street. He should have called in the very best minds and operatives from the corporate and scientific worlds and imposed an emergency plan of action — to be carried out by BP and all others who might be required. Instead, after all this time, after more than a month of BP's demonstrated incompetence, the administration continues to dither.
Incredibly, until The New York Times blew the whistle in an article on Monday, environmental waivers were still being offered for oil drilling in the gulf. What will it take for sanity to prevail? How many people have to die or face ruin, and how much of nature has to be despoiled before we rein in the cowboys of these runaway corporations? Steadily increasing numbers of anxiety-ridden coastal residents are watching not just their livelihoods but an entire way of life slip away. Even as BP's lawyers are consumed with the task of limiting the company's liability, the administration continues to insist it has little choice but to follow the company's lead in fighting the spill. That is dangerous nonsense.
Obama has an obligation to make it unmistakably clear that BP's interests are not the same as America's interests. He needs to stand shoulder to shoulder with the people who are taking the brunt of this latest corporate outrage. The oil has now stained nearly 70 miles of the Louisiana Coast. No one can say what terrible toll the gusher is taking in the depths of the gulf. And spreading right along with the oil is a pervasive and dismaying sense of helplessness from our leaders in Washington.
THE NEW YORK TIMES NEWS SERVICE