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07.16.10

Cautious Optimism In the Gulf

The Florida seaport town of Pensacola has seen BP’s efforts to cap the well fail before. Will this one work? Rick Outzen talks to anxious residents about whether an end to the nightmare is near.

If you want to know how the Gulf Coast feels about the new containment cap on the Deepwater Horizon well, Pensacola, Florida is a good place to start. There’s an outbreak of guarded optimism here in this seaport of 50,000 along the Florida Panhandle—a place that has for months now known anxiety and fear.

“It’s the best news I’ve heard all summer,” said Greg Smith, surfer and bartender of The Global Grill in downtown Pensacola. “All our customers want to think positively, but there is a hint of apprehension. They are still holding their breath, waiting for another shoe to fall.”

“My feeling of helplessness was lifted ever so slightly,” said Pensacola City Council member Maren DeWeese.

Pensacola residents, who have been watching oil spew into their waters and onto their shores since April 20, have seen BP promise—and fail to deliver—before. They remember all too well the company’s proclamations that the “top hat” and the “top cap” had plugged the leak, only to discover that victory had been declared prematurely. They have looked on helplessly as estimates on the amount of oil spewing from the well climbed from 1,000 barrels a day to 60,000 barrels a day. Few people trust what BP says any more.

But still people want to believe.

“I’m cautiously optimistic, but we’ve been down this road before, only to have our hearts ripped out,” Escambia County Commissioner Grover Robinson said in a phone interview. “Our prayers are with the engineers.

“If this cap works, then our focus will turn to recovery.”

Nick Zangari is more optimistic than Robinson, but sees there is much more work to be done. “This is a huge victory, but it’s only Part One of many parts yet to be determined. Such as: how do we clean up the gulf and our beaches?,” said Zangari, owner of New York Nick’s, which is also in downtown Pensacola. “The impact of this disaster on the Gulf Coast is far-reaching.”

Maren DeWeese, Pensacola City Council member and mother of three, says that when she heard about the cap, “My feeling of helplessness was lifted ever so slightly. If this holds, then we can begin picking ourselves up and getting our lives back.”

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DeWeese has been battling BP over a boom-cleaning operation that the oil giant has set up in Bayou Chico, inside the city limits. It has become a staging area for BP—the place where the company’s contractors clean the boom that is being used to capture the oil in the gulf and area bays. DeWeese has wanted BP to pay a cash bond to ensure the company remediates the site and the bayou once it ceases operations. To date, BP has successfully resisted her efforts.

“I’m not letting up,” said DeWeese. “This is a business relationship, and BP needs to protect our citizens.”

Others are waiting for the results of the pressure tests of inside the well bore and casing system, which could last up to 48 hours. On Pensacola Beach, which has been awash in tar balls over the last month, residents are waiting to see the test results.

“Only the science will tell if this is actually working,” says John Asmar, who lives on Pensacola Beach. He is concerned the pressure tests will find other leaks in the seabed around the well. “You put your thumb in the hole and wait to see what happens.”

Graphic designer Joani Delezen is optimistic, but skeptical. “Testing has only begun and now we just have to wait and see if the cap will hold or if it will blow a new leak,” she said. “At least, this is looking better than the “top kill” effort.

“At this point,” she adds, “I don’t have a lot of faith in BP to not find some way to screw it up.”

Rick Outzen is publisher and editor of Independent News, the alternative newsweekly for Northwest Florida.