The national commission charged with investigating the effects of the BP oil spill, kicked off its first day of hearings in New Orleans on Monday. Seven commission members, appointed by President Obama, spent most of the day listening to testimony from the Coast Guard, BP company officials and those people most affected by the oil spill. The commission's recommendations could end up laying the groundwork for future laws and regulations concerning oil spills.
The day started with the co-chairmen expressing sympathy for an area of the country that has dealt with so much during the past five years.
The commission's hearing is set to last two days. It continues on Tuesday with testimony from local elected officials as well as scientists and environmental experts. They will wrap up the day by hearing public comments, something they also did during the final hour and a half of the hearing on Monday.
"The people of America are deeply moved by the scale of these tragedies and the courage demonstrated by the people of this community. We are proud of the tradition you continue," said commission co-chairman and former Senator Bob Graham of Florida.
Graham is serving as co-chairman alongside William Reilly, who headed up the Environmental Protection Agency in the aftermath of the Exxon-Valdez spill.
"That's why we came here as we begin our investigation, by hearing from the people of the region, the people most affected, what they think, what you think, needs to be done," Reilly said.
Outside the hearing, though, some protesters remained skeptical of the commission's impact.
"We want complete transparency on what's going on," said Tracy Stern, as she stood outside the Hilton Riverside Hotel, where the hearing was being held. "If you don't know the truth, then you can not actually transform the situation."
"Let's forget about the rhetoric, and let's dig for the truth," said Bryan Encalade of Pointe A La Hache, whose trucking and fisheries business has been hit hard by the spill.
Yet, before the commission could even begin hearing testimony, protesters inside interrupted the proceedings twice. During testimony, the Coast Guard's Deputy Incident Commander acknowledged some of the mistakes his agency made at the onset of the spill.
"One of the lessons we've learned over time is that we needed to be much more involved, with particularly, the local mayors and the local officials, than we were initially in the response," said Rear Adm. Peter Neffenger of the U.S. Coast Guard.
Commission co-chairman Reilly asked pointed pointed questions to BP North America Senior Vice-president Kent Wells, regarding the company's response to the spill. Reilly referenced his own experience following the Exxon-Valdez spill.
"The response capability looks to me like it did 20 years ago," Reilly said. "Does it seem that way to you?"
"I absolutely think we need to learn everything we can possibly learn from this event," Wells replied. "We are very much focused right now on, if I'm honest with you, on getting this one.".
However, local business owners testified that they are the ones now learning about the potential fallout from the spill, as they are pushed to the brink of closure.
"Due to this unnatural-- unnatural-- catastrophe in our waters, P&J may forever be extinct," said Sal Sunseri, co-owner of P&J Oysters. "The oyster doesn't move much, as you well know, so we don't have a choice in this."