New Orleans, La. – Only two of the seven panelists panel managed to attend the first session. Co-chairmen William Reilly and former Senator Bob Graham were stuck in the aftermath of an East Coast snowstorm. Panel members Don Boesch (bawhsh) and Frances Beinecke (BYE-neh-kee) presided at a forum in a downtown New Orleans hotel. Boesch started off with an overview of the major questions, and what the panel has determined.
"How could this situation come to pass? How could it be that such questionable practices take place when the stakes were so high? We are sad to say that it occurred in part because our government let it happen."
The final report calls for reorganizing and increasing government oversight, holding the oil and gas industry to higher safety standards, and making sure there's a system in place for handing future spills. The panel agrees with political calls for dedicating 80 percent of the Clean Water Act fines to Gulf restoration, and calls on Congress to increase company liability caps that it says are now too low.
But during the question-and-answer session, people began pleading for assistance with health problems they link to the use of chemical dispersants. Boesch says the Environmental Protection Agency is being asked to continue monitoring health complaints. But he says there's no definitive link proven yet on health problems caused by chemical dispersants. And he says the panel has no authority to dispatch medical teams to provide health care.
"We certainly realize the very intense feelings about dispersants and recognize why intuitively putting a chemical on to treat another chemical doesn't make sense to a lot of people. But the decision about dispersant use was -- is a choice between two bad choices."
Biloxi, Mississippi, fisherman James Miller, known as Catfish," was visibly angry at that response. He says he worked on the Vessels of Opportunity program for BP using his own boat to contain the spill, became sick, and is now stuck huge medical bills.
"I might not survive for another five years from cancer or them benzene gasses I've been sniffing. People I'm so upset. I'm shaking in my limbs right now here talking to you."
A woman speaking directly after Miller also pleads for help with getting health care and support from the damage-claim process headed by attorney Ken Feinberg.
"I know your job's probably already one but I'd like to hire you, if you don't mind. And God knows I can't pay you nothing - but I need your heart and I need your voice and I need you to come to that table. And I need you to insist that Feinberg and anybody else that needs to be in on that conversation comes too. And I'm asking you that today, and I would like you to say Yes' to me today while you look at me in the eye. Please say Yes' you'll come to my table."
"Yes. And I think also, these health issues. I pledge that we'll take those back and tell the White House, because."
" Because, you know, that's the best we can do. That's who we report to."
"God bless you."
"You know, you're very powerful. And I think, you know, we're hearing what you're saying. I promise you."
After the meeting, Beinecke said panel members will lobby Congress and the White House for continued study on the multitude of problems Gulf residents continue to face because of the BP spill.
For WWNO, I'm Eileen Fleming