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The Gulf's heavy price for BP 'carelessness'

Mark Mardell | 02:52 UK time, Tuesday, 15 June 2010



While Congress gears up to rip into BP, accusing the company of taking careless short cuts to save money, the president has been in Alabama in a public display intended to demonstrate to America that the Gulf Coast states are open for business.

Barack Obama ordered crab claws and crawfish tails at Tacky Jack's in Orange Beach. Later, he announced new measures to ensure that seafood from the Gulf is safe. But this attempt at jaunty confidence is at odds with some of his own words and with the reality we see around us.

On the boardwalk, people are emerging from the sea washing themselves off in the open air showers with a sense of disgust. A woman from Missouri has been body-surfing with her young daughter - they come here every year. But their boards have a light coating of oil and the bottoms of her daughter's feet are tacky with the stuff.

It's not dramatic. You can hardly see it. But you can feel it.


She tells me there's a light sheen on the ocean. Should BP set up a fund to pay for the clean-up? "Well I didn't do it," she tells me. "It's not my fault."

The beach's bleached sand is so white its glare hurts your eyes. A young man walking along the strand wears a T-shirt mentioning BP that is too rude for you to be told about here. He's been collecting a petition to get the oil company stripped of all its assets so it can pay for the clean-up.

An older woman holding a bottle of water paddles glumly. She's not much of a TV interviewee, understated, just repeating that someone has to clear it up, that she worries about what is out there, worries about the people who rely on the sea for their livelihood. She's been coming here for 20 years and her sadness is poignant.

Around the tourists, workers in overalls clear up the beach as best they can. This only started coming in at the weekend and lumps of oil litter the beach looking very much like a scattering of dog mess fouling a public park.


Although the president's two-day trip is intended to reassure, his words are also alarming. He's compared the spill to 9/11 in the way it may change a nation's policy. He is giving his first ever address from the Oval Office, a deliberate sign that this is of grave concern, and says:

What we're dealing with here is unique because it's not simply one catastrophic event. It's an ongoing assault whose movements are constantly changing. That's what makes this crisis so challenging. It means that it has to be constantly watched. It has to be tracked. We're constantly having to redeploy resources to make sure that they're having maximum impact. And we also need to make sure that we are constantly helping folks who have been hurt by it, even as we're stopping the oil from spreading into more and more areas.

The fuss from Britain about an assault on a British company has gone almost unnoticed here, by the people and by the media.

The prime minister's phone call has certainly not induced the president to go soft on BP. Since the call, the White House has set a deadline for BP to speed up their clean-up efforts, which they've done, and has called for a fund to be held in trust for the spill's victims.

But the moral pressure on the company will only grow by the end of this week. A congressional committee, which meets on Thursday to question BP chief executive Tony Hayward, has accused the company of a series of decisions in the days before the disaster that cut corners to save time and money and led to catastrophe.

It concludes that if the facts of its detailed investigation are correct, the company's carelessness and complacency has led to the people of the Gulf paying a heavy price.


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