the tipping point
A year ago, a top Louisiana fishing guide trusted oil companies and was skeptical of environmentalists. Now, in the aftermath of the BP oil spill, that has reversed.
Sunday, April 10, 2011year after the Deepwater Horizon exploded 60 miles south of his Buras hunting and fishing lodge, Ryan Lambert can distill his opinion of BP and the oil industry down to one word: liars.
By Bob Marshall
It's an opinion he never thought he'd have.
"The fishing industry has always lived side by side with the oil industry down here in Plaquemines Parish. And they've always told us that if anything happened, they would take care of the problem -- they would repair the damages and they would make us whole -- and I believed them," said Lambert, whose Cajun Fishing Adventures Lodge is one of the state's largest recreational fishing operations.
"Well, they lied. About everything. They didn't take care of the problem, and they're not taking care of us. Guys in my business weren't made whole. A lot of them are starving. And now that the national media is gone, BP couldn't care less.
"I'm sick of it, and I'm telling the whole country about it -- on national TV, in magazines and in front of Congress."
As soon as BP's flood of crude began flowing toward the coast last year, Lambert, 52, knew change would rock the business he'd spent nearly half his life building into a regional powerhouse.
He expected his income to plummet, and it has. The peak spring-summer season was down 94 percent from his average, a drop he says cost him $1.1 million.
He expected the 22 families that depend on his business for their livelihoods -- a lodge staff of eight, plus 14 guides -- to take a financial wallop, and they did. Only five of the guides were hired in the cleanup effort. The rest were "calling me daily hoping for work -- which I still don't have for them," he said.
He expected the economic hangover to carry into 2011, and it has. His bookings for May and June are down 55 percent from a normal year, and he has nothing beyond that.
But two changes occurred he never saw coming.
First, the help BP said was on the way to repair damages inflicted on businesses and the environment never came, he said.
That event led to a second unanticipated change: His long trust in the oil industry and skepticism of environmental groups were turned upside-down. He has become a willing volunteer for national green groups, among them the National Wildlife Federation, Natural Resources Defense Council, Ducks Unlimited, the Green Group and the Izaak Walton League.
In fact, today he leaves on his second trip to Washington as a guest of the Natural Resources Defense Council to tell his personal story of loss and disappointment.
"Originally, I was using (the spill) as an opportunity to tell them about the real problem we have here: coastal erosion," said Lambert, who has been involved in that cause for years.
"But the bad experiences we've had with all the lies and broken promises in this disaster have really opened my eyes. And I want everyone in the country to know about it ... know you can't trust what (the oil industry) promises you."
Not made whole
Lambert said the bad experiences didn't start immediately. Like many charter and marina operators, he received a quick $5,000 check from BP in the first weeks of the disaster. That was hardly enough to make up for the losses at his idled 14,000-square-foot operation, but Lambert was encouraged when President Barack Obama got BP to put up $20 billion to establish the Gulf Coast Claims Facility.
Since then, he said, things have gone downhill.
He paid his accountant $7,000 to supply financial records proving his losses would total $1.1 million, but received checks for only $211,000.
"In order to apply for payment, you had to keep your business open so you could help mitigate the final cost, so that meant I had to keep staff and pay operating expenses through the end of the year," Lambert said. "But after all that, I'm still out $904,000 in lost income."
He said he was told he should apply again to be made whole.
"Well, I'm tired of reapplying, because it never does any good," he said. "I'm tired of paying my CPA. Now I'm paying a lawyer."
He plans to file suit.
Lambert, vice president of the Louisiana Charter Boat Association, said his anger deepens when he thinks about the estimated 600 other charter captains in the state. He said the only members who have settled up with BP are those who took a flat $25,000 "quick payments" from claims administrator Kenneth Feinberg.
"The only ones who took that were guys who had no other choice because of their situation," he said. "They had house notes or boat notes or medical expenses and no business coming in. Well, now that money is gone, and they still don't have any business -- and they're just screwed.
"I don't know of any of the guys who have been made whole like they promised."
Lambert said his suffering pales next to his colleagues, because he owns his property and has other business interests to help pay bills. That's not the case for most charter fishers, he said.
"They're independent contractors who work by themselves," he said. "Everyone talks about the ones who made a killing in the cleanup, but not all of them got those jobs. Only five of my 14 guides were hired."
Lambert is also worried about the long-term impacts on the ecosystem that provides his livelihood. He suffered through the leanest speckled trout winter ever, seeing only three of the fish brought to his cleaning tables from spots that traditionally produce daily limits of 25 fish in the cold-weather months. And while speck fishing has improved this spring, he's seen none of the small trout representing last year's spawning class, which entered the estuaries when oil was coming ashore.
State fisheries biologists said tests to determine impacts on last year's spawning class were not complete, and ongoing tissue samples of fish from the impacted areas have shown no signs of hydrocarbon contamination or other ill effects from the spill.
Lambert wishes the rest of the country was convinced of that.
"The attitude outside this area is that everything here is contaminated," he said. "I've done something like 15 TV shows since the spill, and the guys doing the shows tell me people ask them, 'Why are you going fishing down there -- you can't eat the fish.'
"The only out-of-state bookings I'm getting are old customers who just want to show their support."
Tarnished by BP
That new business has dried up, even after Lambert's Cajun Fishing Adventures was named one of the Top 5 fishing lodges in the nation by Sport Fishing magazine.
Even the thrill of that honor was tarnished by BP, he said.
"BP had the audacity to put that on their website, like it was a positive thing showing the Gulf Coast was coming back -- thanks to all their efforts," Lambert recalled. "That just made me crazy.
"What we people should know is that all the millions they spent on those TV and newspaper ads about making things right is a lie.
"And what people in this state should ask themselves is: If a giant like BP isn't making us whole, what do they think is going to happen when the smaller fish in that business have an accident?"
That was a question Lambert said he never asked himself before last April. Now, he says, he thinks he knows the answer.
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Bob Marshall can be reached at email@example.com or 504.826.3539.