Image: Drilling rigs and workboats in the Gulf
Dave Martin  /  AP
Drilling rigs and workboats operate at the site of the Deepwater Horizon incident in the Gulf of Mexico on Friday. The wellhead has been capped and BP is continuing to test the integrity of the well before resuming production.
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updated 7/16/2010 6:52:16 PM ET 2010-07-16T22:52:16

The slicks on the surface will disappear quickly if the cap on BP's blown oil well holds. But the oil will remain in the water, on beaches and in marshes, and in the lives of Gulf Coast residents like Jason Blanchard for years.

Up to 184.3 million gallons of crude has already spilled. Months from now, it could show up as far west as Corpus Christi, Texas, or as far east as North Carolina's Outer Banks. Judging by a comparably sized 1979 spill off Mexico's coast, tar balls and patties could keep washing ashore for decades.

And so, in the sleepy, bayou-embraced town of Chauvin, Blanchard is not expecting to return to his pre-oil-spill days anytime soon, if ever. The sixth-generation professional fisherman had just started making a living off speckled trout and redfish. Now he's part of the massive effort to mop up the spill.

"The oil gets in the water and the marshes and it stays for a while. I hope it don't last that long. I want to get back to fishing," the tanned, sunbleached 32-year-old said.

Blanchard received his captain's license just a week before the oil-rig explosion that set off the spill in April. He plans to fish again for a living, and if he can't do it in the bayous that have nourished rich seafood and a unique culture, he'll move 300 miles away to Toledo Bend Reservoir along the Louisiana-Texas line.

"I don't want to move. I love it down here," Blanchard said. "But my plans are, if they're going to destroy everything and prevent us from doing what we love to do, my plan is to move away from here."

BP is testing a new cap that has so far stopped the flow. By mid-August, it hopes to kill the well.

Once that happens, the recovery begins, but it will take several large storms to break up the oil already in the water, said Tony Wood, director of the National Spill Control School at Texas A&M-Corpus Christi.

"It could show up in Miami next spring," he said. "It is likely that the heavier oils ... will continue to wash in for several years."

'Could be months. Could be years'
Wes Tunnell is a biologist who has studied the impacts of the 1979 Ixtoc oil spill off Mexico's coast for the Harte Research Institute at Texas A&M-Corpus Christi. He said some of the mangrove swamps in the Yucatan Peninsula, an ecosystem similar to the one found off the Louisiana Gulf Coast, are only 80 percent recovered from that spill, and tar can still be found in some areas.

The latest spill carries its own set of unknowns, Tunnell said, including plumes being found deep in the water column and dispersants applied directly at the wellbore, a practice never done before.

Blanchard said BP workers and government officials have told him the impact will last at least two years, so instead of fishing he intends to keep working on spill-related jobs for now. He has been overseeing containment efforts by a company that has a contract with BP, and has been shuttling the Coast Guard and media to oiled areas.

Terrebonne Parish, where Chauvin is located, is rife with signs of a cleanup effort preparing for a long haul. The Coast Guard's command center has about 800 workers and is an active construction site.

The parking lot is being expanded. There are so many people in town that some are living in offshore "motels" planted on barges.

BP has opened 35 claims centers along the Gulf Coast. In Chauvin, the office is a trailer-like structure. Out front is BP's sign, the green-and-yellow sun glaring at the main road. Residents say BP has leased marinas and camp barges. Some of the contracts are for months, others for years, residents say.

BP has declined to comment on its long-term logistical plans.

For the Coast Guard, it "could be months. Could be years," said Nathan Knapp, deputy incident commander for operations at the Houma command post in nearby LaFourche Parish.

Monitoring the leak
The National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration is expecting to track the oil in all its forms — from slicks to patties to tar balls — "until there's no productive oil to pick up," said Steve Lehmann, a scientific support coordinator for the federal agency.

Unless the well starts leaking again, the slicks will rapidly disappear, possibly within a week. NOAA will then rely less on satellite images and turn more to low-flying aircraft to search for tar balls and patties, which can last for years, Lehmann said.

Ixtoc tar still sometimes rolls up in Texas and the Yucatan, Tunnell said, though sandy beaches in south Texas recovered to pre-spill conditions within about three years. Research at the time showed that 50 to 80 percent of the beach populations of different organisms were lost at the height of that 140 million-gallon spill.

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In Yucatan, the fishermen said the oysters and clams never came back, Tunnell said. Most fishermen said the fish returned within a few years.

In Alaska's Prince William Sound, the herring population never recovered from the Exxon Valdez spill in 1989, after 11 million of gallons of oil spewed out of a tanker.

The recovery from the BP spill, and how long it will take, is a prime topic of conversation in Chauvin, home to 3,200 people and dusty roads lined with fishing cabins, marinas and Cajun restaurants. There's almost nothing else to do except talk. The spill has kept most people from working.

'All we do is fish'
So they gather in Lapeyrouse's Grocery on Highway 56, owned by Blanchard's grandparents.

The store sells cigarettes — the price carefully printed on index cards — as well as fishing nets, fishing rods, tackle, work gloves, small boxes of toothpaste. A fuel line hose kit for $22.79; a mosquito headnet for $6.99; a frog grabber for $16.72.

Behind the shop, on oyster shell-covered banks, Terry Lapeyrouse buys shrimp from the fishermen, cleans them, boils them and sells them for national distribution.

"That's all we do is fish," said Michael Blanchard, Jason's 53-year-old father. "I've been fishing for 37 years."

For weeks now, Blanchard's $100,000 shrimp boat has been docked in the bayou across the street from the store, its tied-up nets resembling the wings of a dejected angel.

Wearing his white, mud-encrusted fishing boots with his jeans tucked inside, he runs his hand over the woodwork in the cabin. He built it himself, to save money.

"I ain't leaving," he insists. "My son wants to move to Toledo Bend. ... It terrifies me. It takes my heart away. It really does."

"We grew up fishing, swimming, bonfires, crabbing, everything in the water," said Nathan Thibodeaux, whose great-great-great grandfather planted sugar cane, fished and ran casinos along the coast in the 19th century.

"They taking everything away from us, everything we look forward to," the 45-year-old said. "This is for us like remembering your first dance."

Concerns for the future
Those who want to stay aren't sure how they'll get by.

"Live on love, that's what we gonna do, live on love," Michelle Blanchard, Michael's wife, says with an ironic laugh.

They want to get involved with the cleanup, but they haven't gotten contracts with BP. They can't sell the fishing nets they build anymore. They can do a little welding, but even the shipbuilding yards will close if there's no fishing.

"What plans you gonna make?" said 56-year-old Kenneth Theriout, his Cajun accent more pronounced when he raises his voice in anger.

"I've been doing this since I was 15 years old. I have a seventh-grade education. I'm good at what I do, but I don't know anything else."

Jason Blanchard, meanwhile, has work, but he may be losing his hometown, and a way of life that has been part of his family for generations.

"I don't want to move away," Blanchard says. "But if I can't fish, who's going to pay for me to stay?"

Copyright 2010 The Associated Press. All rights reserved. This material may not be published, broadcast, rewritten or redistributed.

Video: Oil stops flowing, but it's no feather in BP's cap

  1. Transcript of: Oil stops flowing, but it's no feather in BP's cap

    WILLIAMS: Good evening.

    BRIAN WILLIAMS, anchor: Reports from the Gulf of Mexico haven't really been optimistic in any way for going on three months, but tonight the prognosis is being described as muted optimism as the tests on that well have been going on now for more than 24 hours , and so far no leaks, no rupture, no new oil on top of the ton they're already dealing with. Just the sight of it turned off has a lot of folks in the region already worried that the media, the cameras, the concern will begin to go away. They know what a tough time they are in for. We begin with a progress report tonight from our own Anne Thompson in Venice , Louisiana , once again. Anne , good evening.

    ANNE THOMPSON reporting: Good evening, Brian . The test will go on for at least a few more hours tonight, as engineers and scientists try to figure out what those pressure readings inside the ceiling cap really mean. You can see the difference on the surface above the damaged well. The flames of the Discoverer Enterprise and Q4000 are out. No ship is collecting oil because, for a second day, the crude is not flowing. But there are concerns.

    Admiral THAD ALLEN, Retired (National Incident Commander): I think we're to a point where there's enough uncertainty regarding what the meaning of the pressure is that we're seeing that we need to have due diligence moving forward. We need -- we need to be careful not to do any harm.

    THOMPSON: After 24 hours , the pressure level is 6,700 pounds per square inch , an inconclusive reading that could mean so much oil has already flowed out that the pressure is lower than expected, or there is a leak underground. President Obama today praised the containment, but warned it is not the ultimate fix.

    President BARACK OBAMA: We won't be done until we actually know that we've killed the well and that we have a permanent solution in place. We're moving in that direction, but I don't want us to get too far ahead of ourselves.

    THOMPSON: In Gulf Shores , Alabama , they aren't.

    Mr. ROBERT CRAFT (Gulf Shores, Alabama Mayor): What is this? About the eighth time they've tried to do something out there? So I don't -- I don't think any of us are confident that this is going to hold.

    THOMPSON: In Biloxi , Mississippi , it wasn't containment but compensation that had gulf fund administrator Ken Feinberg face to face with frustration.

    Unidentified Man: I have my canceled trips. My bank went and pulled all my bank statements, my deposits, matched them up with check stubs.

    Mr. KEN FEINBERG: Pay the man.

    THOMPSON: This week Louisiana re-opened 86 percent of the state waters closed to sports fishermen, a huge relief to George Hayes .

    Mr. GEORGE HAYES: There's no wait, basically. I just love it.

    THOMPSON: Today's catch made Governor Bobby Jindal smile for the first time in months. Officials in Louisiana hope commercial waters will re-open soon, to pump money back into the state's economy and put Louisiana seafood on America 's dinner table once again. But that decision, like so much on the Gulf Coast , is on hold. Now, as the test goes on at the government's insistence, BP is going to step up its monitoring of the sea floor, which up to now, Admiral Allen says,

    has shown no signs of trouble. Brian: Anne Thompson , again starting off our reporting at the end of this eventful week down in Louisiana . Anne , thanks.

    WILLIAMS:

Photos: Month 4

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  1. The Blue Dolphin, left, and the HOS Centerline, the ships supplying the mud for the static kill operation on the Helix Q4000, are seen delivering mud through hoses at the site of the Deepwater Horizon Oil Spill in the Gulf of Mexico, off the coast of Louisiana, on Aug. 3, 2010. In the background is the Development Driller III, which is drilling the primary relief well. (Gerald Herbert / AP) Back to slideshow navigation
  2. Eddie Forsythe and Don Rorabough dump a box of blue crabs onto a sorting table at B.K. Seafood in Yscloskey, La., on Aug. 3, 2010. The crabs were caught by fisherman Garet Mones. Commercial and recreational fishing has resumed, with some restrictions in areas that were closed by the Deepwater Horizon oil spill. (Chuck Cook / AP) Back to slideshow navigation
  3. Sea turtle hatchlings that emerged from eggs gathered on the northern Gulf Coast of Florida are released at Playalinda Beach on the Canaveral National Seashore near Titusville, Fla., on Aug. 2, 2010. The sea turtles were born at a Kennedy Space Center incubation site, where thousands of eggs collected from Florida and Alabama beaches along the Gulf of Mexico have been sent. (Craig Rubadoux / Florida Today via AP) Back to slideshow navigation
  4. A crab, covered with oil, walks along an oil absorbent boom near roso-cane reeds at the South Pass of the Mississippi River in Plaquemines Parish, Louisiana on Aug. 1, 2010. BP is testing the well to see if it can withstand a "static kill" which would close the well permanently. (Pool / Reuters) Back to slideshow navigation
  5. A boat motors through a sunset oil sheen off East Grand Terre Island, where the Gulf of Mexico meets Barataria Bay on the La. coast, on the evening of July 31. (Gerald Herbert / AP) Back to slideshow navigation
  6. Oil approaches a line of barges and boom positioned to protect East Grand Terre Island, partially seen at top right, on July 31. (Gerald Herbert / AP) Back to slideshow navigation
  7. Oil from the Deepwater Horizon oil spill is seen near an unprotected island in the Gulf of Mexico near Timbalier Bay, off the coast of Louisiana on Wednesday, July 28. (Gerald Herbert / AP) Back to slideshow navigation
  8. Greenpeace activists stand outside a BP gas station in London, England, on July 27 after they put up a fence to cut off access. Several dozen BP stations in London were temporarily shut down to protest the Gulf spill. (Leon Neal / AFP - Getty Images) Back to slideshow navigation
  9. James Wilson sells T-shirts to those arriving in Grand Isle, La., for the music festival Island Aid 2010 on July 24. (Dave Martin / AP) Back to slideshow navigation
  10. Activists covered in food coloring made to look like oil protest BP's Gulf oil spill in Mexico City on July 22. The sign at far left reads in Spanish "Petroleum kills animals." (Alexandre Meneghini / AP) Back to slideshow navigation
  11. People in Lafayette, La., wear "Keep Drilling" tee shirts at the "Rally for Economic Survival" opposing the federal ban on deepwater drilling in the Gulf of Mexico on Wednesday, July 21. Supporters at the rally want President Obama to lift the moratorium immediately to protect Louisiana's jobs and economy. (Ann Heisenfelt / EPA) Back to slideshow navigation
  12. A flock of white ibis lift off from marsh grass on Dry Bread Island in St. Bernard Parish, La., July 21. Crews found about 130 dead birds and 15 live birds affected by oil from the Deepwater Horizon oil spill on July 19 in the eastern part of the parish behind the Chandeleur Islands. (Patrick Semansky / AP) Back to slideshow navigation
  13. Kenneth Feinberg, administrator of the BP Oil Spill Victim Compensation Fund testifies during a hearing before the House Judiciary Committee on July 21 in Washington, D.C. The hearing was to examine the claim process for victims of the Gulf Coast oil spill. (Alex Wong / Getty Images) Back to slideshow navigation
  14. An American white pelican has its wings checked during a physical examination at Brookfield Zoo’s Animal Hospital by Michael Adkesson and Michael O’Neill on July 21. The bird, along with four other pelicans, was rescued from the Gulf Coast oil spill and will be placed on permanent exhibit at the zoo. (Jim Schulz / Chicago Zoological Society via AP) Back to slideshow navigation
  15. Native people of the Gwich'in Nation form a human banner on the banks of the Porcupine River near Ft. Yukon, Alaska July 21, in regard to the BP oil spill with a message to protect the Arctic National Wildlife Refuge from oil development. The images include a Porcupine caribou antler and a threatened Yukon River Salmon. (Camila Roy / Spectral Q via Reuters) Back to slideshow navigation
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  1. Image:
    Gerald Herbert / AP
    Above: Slideshow (15) Oil spill disaster in the Gulf - Month 4
  2. Image: Economic And Environmental Impact Of Gulf Oil Spill Deepens
    Mario Tama / Getty Images
    Slideshow (64) Oil spill disaster in the Gulf - Month 3
  3. Image: Oil Spill In The Gulf
    Digitalglobe / Getty Images Contributor
    Slideshow (81) Oil spill disaster in the Gulf - Month 2
  4. Image: Dispersed oil caught in the wake of a transport boat floats on the Gulf of Mexico
    Hans Deryk / Reuters
    Slideshow (53) Oil spill disaster in the Gulf - Month 1
  5. Image:
    Gerald Herbert / AP
    Slideshow (10) Oil spill disaster in the Gulf - Rig explosion

Map: Gulf oil spill trajectory

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