SID SALTER: Questions abound after spotlight fades away from oil-stained coast

As long as there was a gushing undersea oil well on the nightly TV screens, the 24-hour news cycle gorged itself on the Deepwater Horizon oil rig disaster story and filled that gaping maw of time with images of oil in the water, dead or dying birds and marine life, and people under pressure.
Now, CNN, Fox News, MSNBC and the traditional Big Three networks have essentially moved on and left the oil spill as a secondary story. There’s no undersea gusher to film, a lot of the Gulf’s waters have been reopened to commercial fishing and life has begun to return to normal.
That’s great for tourism on the Gulf Coast. That’s great for the fishermen and the charter boat people. But for those damaged by the oil spill, this is a dangerous time.
Why? Out of sight, out of mind, that’s why.
Gulf Coast residents who have legitimate claims for legitimate environmental, economic and ecological damages know best how quickly the public’s attention can be diverted – along with the media’s attention. They learned that lesson in the wake of Hurricane Katrina.
Now, even the government is talking in terms of a return to normalcy. The Obama administration has put forth a finding that three-quarters of the 4.9 million barrels or 205.8 million gallons of oil that fouled the Gulf from the Macondo well has either disappeared or is in the process of disappearing.
Still, the feds are talking tough about punishing British Petroleum and seeing the protracted clean-up effort through. Former Mississippi governor and current Navy Secretary Ray Mabus has been charged with leading the federal effort toward the Gulf Coast’s long-term restoration.
Mabus, along with his boss, faces some strong scrutiny from his former Mississippi constituents. Describing how many Mississippi Gulf Coast residents feel about BP and their promises to make them whole for the damages the oil spill cause as skeptical really doesn’t describe the emotion.
Most I’ve spoken with during the spill weren’t skeptical, they were cynical. While the Macondo oil well a mile down in the Gulf has apparently been capped and killed, Mississippi Gulf Coast residents know that the clean-up, restoration and necessary subsequent scientific testing and research is a marathon, not a sprint.
As it was when the media spotlight left the Gulf Coast after Katrina, the absence of national scrutiny invites the presence of apathy and an erosion of urgency in getting help for those harmed by the disaster.
There are some significant unresolved issues beyond the Gulf Coast’s restoration.
- What about the long-term environmental impact of the oil and the dispersant?
- Is the Gulf Coast’s seafood really safe? What about the crabs and oysters?
- What about the six-month moratorium on offshore drilling?
- First Katrina, then the recession, then the oil spill. What’s the psychological impact on Mississippi Gulf Coast residents at a time when Mississippi is cutting back on mental health care?
- How can Mississippi state and local governments be assured of being made whole for lost tax revenues – and how long will that take?
- Will BP keep their commitment to fund university research into the oil spill’s impact and fund it with Gulf Coast universities?
- What’s the plan to replace the income of those whose jobs have been obliterated by the spill?
The fears of those critical problems being out of sight, out of mind from the national consciousness now that the gusher is plugged are real and justified. The economically displaced fear they will be forgotten altogether.
Good question. Will they?

Sid Salter is Perspective editor at The Clarion-Ledger and a syndicated columnist. Contact him at (601) 961-7084 or ssalter@jackson.gannett.com.

Sid Salter