WASHINGTON — BP's image, which took an ugly beating after the Gulf oil spill, is recovering since the company capped the well, though the oil giant's approval level is still anything but robust. A majority of Americans still aren't convinced it is safe to eat seafood from parts of the Gulf or swim in its waters, a new AP poll shows.
Politically, President Barack Obama's rating on handling the nation's worst oil spill has nudged up to about 50 percent, the poll indicated. Fewer people now think the spill is a major national issue, and more support increased drilling in U.S. coastal waters than oppose it.
Safety remains a worry.
"Normally, I would go to the casinos and eat seafood, but now I'm going to be kind of skeptical of eating," said Samuel Washington, 44, who lives in Norfolk, Va., but also owns a home in Ocean Springs, Miss. "My biggest concern is whether or not they are really testing all the affected areas."
The poll results were released as BP on Wednesday afternoon began flushing drilling mud and hydrocarbons from the well sealing cap and the original Deepwater Horizon Lower Marine Riser Package and Blow Out Preventer. The flushing is in advance of a pressure test procedure that will study the well's BOP stack and sealing cap under ambient conditions.
The poll showed approval for Obama's handling of the mess has risen from 45 percent in June, while BP's marks have more than doubled — from 15 percent to a still lackluster 33 percent. Some 66 percent of those surveyed continue to disapprove of BP's performance, down from a whopping 83 percent in June.Government testing of Gulf seafood flawed, coalition says
More than half, 54 percent, said they weren't confident that it is safe yet to eat seafood from the spill areas, and 55 percent said they weren't confident that the beaches in the affected areas were safe for swimming.
Still, just 60 percent of those surveyed called the spill an important issue now, down from 87 percent in June. Only 21 percent said it would affect them and their families a great deal or a lot in the next year, down from 40 percent in June.
"At least it did get capped. It could have been done a whole lot sooner," said Deshon Jenkins, 33, of Arlington, Texas, who works in shipping and warehousing and was among those who said the spill would "not at all" affect his life.
Shrimper Patrick Hue of Buras, La., said BP has been hard at work. "You can't deny that," he said. "They got boats out here, they got people working. ... I guess they're cleaning up what they're supposed to clean up."
But Connie Bartenbach, owner of Rental Resources, a Mississippi company that specializes in vacation and corporate rentals, said BP "ruined our whole summer. They should not be let off the hook. ... There's no upside to this."
Between June and the week that the Associated Press-GfK poll was conducted, Aug. 11-16, BP capped the well, it was announced that gaffe-prone chief Tony Hayward was losing that job and the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration said most of the oil had dissolved, dispersed or been removed.
Those developments probably contributed to the improved public attitude, though the NOAA findings have been challenged by some ocean researchers as far too optimistic.
Whatever the case, it is clear is that the spilling of over 200 million gallons of crude oil into the Gulf no longer looms as a commanding political issue for voters heading toward midterm elections in November.
Voters are far more concerned about the economy, jobs and bulging federal deficits.
The poll showed that 48 percent favor increasing drilling for oil and gas in coastal waters, up from 45 percent in June. Some 36 percent said they opposed increased drilling, down from 41 percent. The rest didn't have an opinion.
The spill began after the offshore drilling rig Deepwater Horizon, operated by well owner BP and owned by Transocean Ltd., exploded on April 20, killing 11 workers. Only the deliberate dumping of oil by Iraq in the 1991 Gulf War ranks in the world as a larger spill.
For months, the spill riveted the public's attention as oil and gas spewed relentlessly from the ocean floor, fouling marshes and beaches and leading to the shutdown of fisheries.
Obama, who just prior to the spill had called for an increase in offshore drilling, struggled to demonstrate leadership and fend off GOP attacks suggesting the crisis was his equivalent of Hurricane Katrina.
As repeated attempts to cap the well failed, Obama expressed compassion with Gulf Coast residents and anger toward BP, delivered a prime-time address on the issue and imposed a drilling moratorium. He successfully pressed BP to set up a $20 billion liability fund.
Fishing and commercial shrimping activity has been resuming as the drilling of two relief wells, begun in May, nears completion. The first one to reach the damaged well will seal it from below with mud and cement. The flow of oil was cut off from the top in mid-July.
Retired Coast Guard Adm. Thad Allen, the government's point man on the spill, said Wednesday he has no timeline for ordering the completion of the relief well despite earlier plans to finish it by early to mid-August. Stormy weather and questions of how to mitigate potential risks in the procedure make it hard to set a firm date, he told reporters.
Mike Voisin, who runs a Louisiana-based oyster harvesting and processing business, said despite waves of anger directed at BP by the public, the company has succeeded in working well with local communities. "Did they make mistakes? Sure. Should they have been better prepared? Yes," Voisin said. He estimated his business took a 50 percent hit "but we'll work our way through it."
"With more than half of the American people still worried about swimming in the Gulf or eating its seafood, we must be vigilant about monitoring the spill and its continued effects," said Rep. Ed Markey, D-Mass. Markey heads a House panel on energy and the environment that is holding a hearing Thursday on seafood safety and where the oil went.
The AP-GfK Poll was conducted by GfK Roper Public Affairs and Corporate Communications. It involved landline and cell phone interviews with 1,007 adults nationwide and had a margin of sampling error of plus or minus 4.5 percentage points.
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