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Gulf oil spill makes landfall, blackening Louisiana beaches

GRAND ISLE, La. -- Waves of heavy crude oil pushed ashore at barrier islands in southern Louisiana on Saturday, ruining some of this state's only beaches and, more importantly, threatening the fragile ecosystem of Louisiana's wetlands.

Workers in knee-high rubber boots and hard hats shoveled polluted black sand and gobs of oil into plastic bags on the beaches of Elmer's Island Wildlife Refuge near Grand Isle, La., while the Louisiana National Guard raced to finish the construction of barriers made of sand and rock to protect miles of marshes. Meanwhile, residents lashed out at public officials and BP representatives at a town hall meeting in Houma, La.

"The government allowed this to happen,'' said Dean Blanchard, owner of a major Louisiana seafood distributorship, Dean Blanchard Seafood, and homeowner in Grand Isle. "They allowed them to be out there without a plan, without the right safety stuff because BP paid them in lobbying fees. As soon as the oil come, my dog died. So [BP] isn't any better than Michael Vick. They killed my dog and that's how I feel.''

At Elmer's Island, crews hired by BP worked in shifts to laboriously remove oil from sands once teeming with wildlife. Some workers rested under tents while others scooped oil into clear plastic tarps and piled the mess away from the beach.

"Slowly but surely,'' said a site manager, who requested anonymity for fear of losing his job. Contractors have been instructed to not speak with reporters, who were escorted by local police onto the island on Saturday.

While cleanup crews removed the pollution from Elmer's Island, members of the Louisiana National Guard hauled away clean sand from the island to be used for man-made barriers to prevent Gulf water from flowing into wetlands. Bulldozers emptied loads of sand into a constant stream of tractor trailers, which were hauled away quickly. According staff sergeant Rodney Sanderford, the Louisiana National Guard has been stationed in Grand Isle for 15 days.

"Our mission right now is to build barriers,'' Sanderford said. ``We've never taken on a project of this type.''

Said Sgt. Ray Duplechain, nodding at the cleanup crews: "We're proactive and they're reactive.''

In Houma, La., on Saturday, a town hall meeting at a local auditorium organized by Democratic U.S. Charlie Melancon was the scene of rising tension for communities affected by the oil slick. Blanchard cornered one representative of BP and demanded an apology from the company's CEO, Tony Hayward.

"Are they getting even with us for dropping their tea in the Boston Harbor?'' Blanchard said. "What the heck is going on here? [Hayward] can't get away with this. He needs to come here on the ground and look at these people he put out of business and then try to tell them that it's a minor environmental disaster.

Blanchard, whose company is one of the Gulf's largest distributors of shrimp, said he is losing approximately $150,000 per day because of the oil slick. He expects to be compensated by BP for his losses but isn't satisfied.

"I'm going to get millions but I don't want it. It's not worth it. What I'm losing, they can't replace -- my livelihood, what I love to do, what I get up at 3 o'clock in the morning to do every day.''

Blanchard's outrage was echoed throughout the community gathering.

"We are an isolated community doomed to die,'' said Dolly Duplantis, a life-long resident of Houma, La. "We're living in hell. I guess Cajuns are mild mannered people. They don't protest and just go with the flow but now BP has come in and destroyed us.''

Hugh Deland, a government liaison for BP, listened intently to the complaints and told residents that BP will remain in southern Louisiana "until the job is done and probably sometime thereafter for a lot of reasons.

"One of which is we're the biggest producers of oil and gas in the Gulf of Mexico. Secondly, when the oil flow is stopped and the cleanup is complete, we will still be dealing with issues of making sure people's claims have been addressed properly.''

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