HOPEDALE, LA.— In the small towns of coastal Louisiana, the widespread consensus is that the oil is far from gone.
Fishermen return from working on cleanup crews or from recreational angling trips with stories of crabs whose lungs are black with oil, or of oysters with shells covered in sludge. They take photos and carry tarballs home like talismans to show what they have seen. They talk about their fears with anyone who will listen, and often their voices are tinged with panic.
Yet a released last week by the (NOAA) said that 75 percent of the oil has been cleaned up, dispersed or otherwise contained. And the (FDA) that of all the samples of seafood that have been tested since the oil spill, none have shown evidence of contamination.
While some in the coastal seafood industry agree with these assessments, a majority seem to view the news with a sense of betrayal.
"The cleanup isn't even close to being done," said Karen Hopkins of Dean Blanchard Seafood, which accounts for about 11 percent of the U.S. shrimp supply, on the barrier island of Grand Isle.
"The last thing I want to do is scare anyone away from the seafood down here," said Dawn Nunez, standing at the counter of the shrimp wholesale business and deli she owns in the tiny fishing town of Hopedale. "But if I’m not eating it or feeding it to my children, I can’t advise anyone else to eat it either."
On their dock across the street, Dawn's husband Marty Nunez pulls a clump of oil-ridden marsh grass out of a plastic bag.
"There's people fishing where this is at – or worse than this," he said. "I can't understand how they say things are getting back to normal."
Nunez surreptitiously picked the grass while working as part of BP's cleanup operation on Monday. For him the oil-soaked grass is a symbol of a lurking threat. Like many other people living along the coast, Nunez is confident that vast quantities of oil remain in the environment, despite highly publicized announcements to the contrary.
"Our fishermen bring home grass and tarballs and then we watch the news and they say there is no sign of oil," said Dawn Nunez. "Where did it go? Where did millions of gallons of oil go if it's not in the Gulf?"
A widely held theory is that the 1.8 million gallons of dispersants that were sprayed during the cleanup operation caused the oil to sink to the bottom.
"I've been working with oil all my life," said Brian Zito, a commercial fisherman on Grand Isle. "Dispersant is like a soap, and if you wash your hands in a bucket your water will be all white and soapy and fine. But let that bucket sit there for a few hours and see what happens – all that oil is going to come back together."
When they start trawling for shrimp or dredging for oysters, fishermen fear that the oil will get stirred up again.