By Harvey Morris in Buras, Louisiana
Published: May 30 2010 16:32 | Last updated: May 30 2010 16:32
Congressman Charlie Melancon was moved to tears in the House last week when he described the plight of his Mississippi delta constituents – and that was before BP announced it had abandoned the latest effort to stem the oil leak that threatens their fragile coastline.
“There’s anger and there’s frustration and the anger is building,” Mr Melancon said at the weekend as news came in that BP’s “top kill” operation had failed to reduce the flow from the crippled deepwater well.
“These are hard-working people and they make their living on the water,” he said, looking around the Black Velvet bar in Buras during a tour of the southern delta on Saturday.
Later in the day, BP announced it had decided, in consultation with federal authorities, to halt the latest initiative to contain the leak.
As the only Democrat among seven members of Congress representing the state of Louisiana and a candidate for the Senate this year, Mr Melancon has confronted demands from voters that Barack Obama, the US president, and the government take charge.
While most local anger has been directed at BP, exploding at town hall meetings of shrimpers and crabbers and those whose livelihoods depend on those industries, there is a growing backlash against what many see as the administration’s lacklustre response.
Even such a Democratic stalwart as James Carville, a party strategist from Louisiana and friend of the president, has accused Mr Obama of “political stupidity” and the administration of being “lackadaisical”.
Mr Melancon told the Financial Times he believed a visit to the region by Mr Obama last week had cleared up some of the concerns. “We saw the same kind of partisan rhetoric after Hurricane Katrina instead of getting the job done,” he said.
The worst scenario facing his state, he added, was that it would end up with no oil industry and no fishing industry, the twin motors of the coastal economy.
As a declared friend of the oil industry and a supporter of offshore drilling, he said the emphasis must now be on even tighter regulation.
“We had a federal agency that waived environmental law,” he said, referring to the interior department’s Minerals Management Service. “That, in my mind, is criminal.”
He said reform of the MMS should go further than changes already announced, possibly moving its revenue collection functions closer to the Internal Revenue Service. “I’m for offshore drilling but it’s got to be safe,” Mr Melancon said. “It’s an economic driver for this region. What do we do if the fishing goes and we don’t have the oill?”
The local sense of frustration has led people to look for local answers, such as Bobby Jindal’s plan to build sand berms offshore to protect the delta wetlands.
The drawback to the governor’s plan as a quick fix is that, as Rich Blink, a local coastal restoration engineer said, “it could take six months to a year”.
The US headed into Memorial Day on Monday, when Americans traditionally mark the start of summer by going to the beach, but the focus on the Gulf Coast is on cleaning the beaches and averting a worse disaster.
As Ron Thibodeaux wrote in The Times-Picayune newspaper on Sunday: “Who among us here in Louisiana was not rendered heartsick by the sight this week of brown pelicans – our state symbol – coated in oil . . .
“Frankly, I’ve had enough. Enough of the insults to our good state and its good people from the callous company responsible for this environmental apocalypse.”