The French news website Rue 89 on Wednesday filed a report on the Gulf Disaster by Hélène Crié-Wiesner, a French environmental journalist and the author of half a dozen books on environmental subjects.  --  Her article is translated below.[1] ...



[Translated from Rue 89]


By Hélène Crié-Wiesner

Rue 89
June 23, 2010

LOUISIANA -- You go to the end of the world, to the end of the tongue of land you can drive on along the Mississippi River going south, to see the oil, to contemplate a disaster that's so spectacular when seen from a plane, when seen from the sea, when seen in a close-up of oiled birds.  But when you get there, there's almost nothing to see.

No oil on the ground.  Only men rushing about, boats at the dock, fishermen who have become cleaners, guards, soldiers, sheriffs, worksite hands.  But no oil.  The coastal wetlands certainly aren't very clean, but they're no dirtier than usual.  The birds still seem to like it there.

To see a little of the oil that's still gushing off the coast of Louisiana, you have to sail for a good hour from Venice, which is the closest place you can reach by car in the affected zones at the mouth of the Mississippi.  And there's no way to avoid paying about $800 (approx. 651 euros) to board a boat.

The fishermen won't take you out for free.  And even if you can pay, if you don't rent their boat for an entire day they'll only be available after they finish their daily contract with BP, with the Coast Guard, with scientists, politicians, TV stations with deep pockets, all of these boosting the going price -- which is not the normal one -- to between $250 and $400 an hour (approx. 203-325 euros). 


That's how it works in Venice, a port complex where nobody really lives, where there are only three hotels and a few restaurants.  It's the equipment and pipes stocked there that keeps Venice alive, the warehouses of Conoco, Exxon, Halliburton, and other oil and gas companies.  Fishing, too, especially shrimp.

Obviously no boat is going out fishing, it's banned.  But for the short term, at least, don't feel sorry for Venice's fishing bosses.  BP is renting all available watercraft to transport its temp cleaners out to see or along the shores.

John Ryan Nader, a young construction boss in Baton Rouge who has extended his business to Venice by renting boats to oil companies (and sometimes to journalists), is rubbing his hands in anticipation these days:  "When you see boats in Venice during the day, it's because their owners decided to stay in.  Either they have other income, or they hate BP, or they prefer to wait for the promised compensation payments.  No one has the right to complain:  there's work for good money for everyone.  Now, on the ecological level, it's a disaster.  But that's something else."

It's true for Venice, but not necessarily elsewhere, where not everyone who wants to work for BP has been hired.  But here, there's no unemployment, either before the oil spill, or now. 


Hundreds of men are filling the local hotels and grimy mobile homes installed in industrial parks, or are sleeping in their cars for the length of their contract.  "Disaster contracts" they call them, or "spill contracts."

There's no hotel room available for anywhere within 200 kilometers (124 miles) of Venice.  It's the same in Grand Isle, a place that was very polluted but that's now almost immaculate, constantly cleaned by the army of little hands paid by BP.  Clean, until the wind changes direction.  Clean, but forbidden to the public.

Grand Isle is a long tongue of sand perpendicular to the coast, one of the "barrier islands" along the coast that protect the gigantic, legendary Louisiana swamps.  In the summer, the place is normally turned over to the vacationers.  But now it's the workers that are keeping the place going.

Early in the morning, at breakfast time, and again in the evening, a fleet of yellow schoolbuses comes to drop off and pick up hordes of cleaners.  Their work is unpleasant in the torrid humidity.  They have to take long breaks in air-conditioned places to recover.

The same scenes can bee seen on the shores of the Gulf from Louisiana to Florida, everywhere the tar balls have already arrived.  With some variations:  clean-up boats instead of buses, absorbent booms instead of brooms and rakes, floating decontamination units in boats instead of wash basins to wash boots.


I won't say here how much BP and local and federal government agencies have already spent to fight the effect of the oil spill.  The figures are constantly growing, it's enough to know that they're colossal.

The size of the human and technical mobilization is dizzying.  So far, BP has rented 447 boats just for cleaning, vaccuuming, and burning oil, and to house workers.  In all, 6,310 vessels of every sort are at work.  About 35,000 temporary workers are being paid by BP.

There's only one thing I can compare it to:  what I saw at Chernobyl, just after and in the years that followed the 1986 accident.

Tens of thousands of men, working like ants, always starting over.  Inadequate technologies up against what they have to fight.  Unimaginable costs.  A wildly huge bureaucracy.  A completely crazy and erratic hierarchy of tasks.

In the end, the USSR collapsed under the weight of this final blow, but that's another story.


The logistics needed to manage such a catastrophe are unbelievably complex.  At Chernobyl, Soviet authorities created out of nothing a half-industrial, half-governmental structure:  the "kombinant."  Today the U.S. and BP are playing the role of kombinant.

At the federal level, the disaster is managed like a war.  The United States has some experience in that area, so it works reasonably well.  Now that the improvisation of the first two months is over, the federal government is beginning to put in place a more or less coherent central command to take over the reins left for too long in the hands of BP. 

Nevertheless, no matter how much animosity you feel toward BP, one realization is unavoidable:  to operate at sea and make contracts with port and logistical professionals at sea isn't something you can improvise, whether it at the level of the U.S. Coast Guard or of the presidency.

BP is responsible for the catastrophe, and BP is also the only one able to set in motion the stupefying means that are at work today.  It's going to cost BP more than some people think.  All the state and politicians can do is to contain as best they can the financial mess that's looming.

--Hélène Crié-Wiesner writes:  "A Frenchwoman, I live in North Carolina, a land of tobacco and pigs now converted to biotech, computers, wine, and top-flight universities.  I write for the French press on environmental subjects.  In the past I worked for "La gueule ouverte" and the German daily Die Tageszeitung, then later especially for France Inter, Science et Vie, and Sciences & Avenir.  I was environmental reporter for Libération from 1986 to 2000.  In 2000, I left for Texas, where the cultural adapation was difficult.  But now it's starting to work out."  Her books:  Autant en rapporte le vent (Gallimard, 2005 [on wind power]); On peut toujours recycler les ordures (Gallimard, 2002 [on recycling garbage]); Questions de déchets: le maire et les ordures ménagères with Loïc Chauveau (Uni-Editions, 1998 [on recycling]), Ce nucléaire qu'on nous cache with Michèle Rivasi (Albin Michel, 1998 [on nuclear power]), Meurtres à Libération (Calmann-Lévy, 1989), Tchernobyl-sur-Seine with Yves Lenoir (Calmann-Lévy, 1987).

Translated by Mark K. Jensen
Associate Professor of French
Department of Languages and Literatures
Pacific Lutheran University
Tacoma, WA 98447-0003
Phone: 253-535-7219
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