By Kathy Finn
GRAND ISLE, Louisiana (Reuters) - A year after the worst U.S. offshore oil spill swamped the Gulf coast with petroleum and misery, officials on Wednesday declared the hard-hit region reborn.
It is still too early to know the long-term damage to the Gulf's rich and complex ecosystem. But, so far, predictions made at the height of the spill of an impending environmental Armageddon appear well overstated.
"We're inviting America to come down here, have a great time, enjoy our seafood and be part of the greatest rebirth you will ever see," said Louisiana's Republican Governor Bobby Jindal at a ceremony to mark the event's anniversary.
An explosion aboard the Deepwater Horizon drilling rig on April 20, 2010, killed 11 workers and released nearly 5 million barrels of oil that fouled the shorelines of four Gulf Coast states.
Louisiana bore the brunt of the BP Plc spill's damage -- about 650 miles of its coastline were oiled, versus 174 miles in Florida, 159 miles in Mississippi and 90 miles in Alabama.
On Grand Isle, a barrier island at the mouth of Barataria Bay which was heavily oiled, business is returning to normal after the spill shut down fisheries and caused widespread economic damage.
"Everything's opening up again now," said J.T. Hood, a retired offshore platform worker who came down from Donaldson, La., for some offshore fishing. "I can't wait to get back out there." When Hood's son, a commercial fisherman, ventured out recently, he had a respectable haul.
"By 10 a.m. he had 75 speckled trout," Hood said.
Nearby, local TV chef Kevin Diez whipped up the region's signature seafood dish -- shrimp etouffee - made with the famous Gulf crustacean.
The scene was a far cry from the early days of the spill when there were images of oiled pelicans and the undersea "spill cam" dominated the media. Then, environmentalists warned of the death of the Gulf Coast's fisheries and said that undersea currents threatened to carry the oil to the shores of the United Kingdom and beyond.
"The greatest environmental disaster with no end in sight!" a group called Seize BP, an advocacy group that gathered petitions to ask the federal government to seize BP's assets, said in a statement in May 2010. "Millions of gallons of oil gushing for months (and possibly years) to come. Jobs vanishing. Creatures dying."
To be sure, in places like Bay Jimmy and Barataria Bay, the oil lingers in the form of brownish, sometimes caramel-colored tar and there are dead or dying marsh grasses.
There are also perhaps millions of barrels of oil lingering beneath the ocean surface, according to federal government estimates. The effect of that oil on life in the sea are still largely unknown.
NO EXXON VALDEZ
But the spill's effects are far less serious than the 1989 Exxon Valdez disaster, which soaked Alaska's environmentally fragile coast in heavy oil, said Edward Overton, an ecologist and professor emeritus at Louisiana State University in Baton Rouge.
"I think it's too early to tell, but I am extremely optimistic," Overton said. "We're way off what Exxon Valdez was, way off."
In Florida, where the oil spill cost the state's tourist-dependent economy more than $1 billion, officials were eager to tout their hotels, restaurants and resorts.
"Bookings are up and our beaches are spotless," Florida Gov. Rick Scott declared after touring Destin's white-sand beaches. "The fishing is good and the seafood tastes great."
But across the Gulf Coast, residents who still feel the spill's impact fear they will be abandoned by BP and an army of contractors who swarmed over the coast in the largest oil-spill response in U.S. history, involving nearly 50,000 workers and 7,000 offshore vessels at its height.
"Oil is still washing up on our beaches and on the islands. Now that the media is gone, the BP effort has all but disappeared and so has our livelihood," said Craig Moore, a charter boat captain in Long Beach, Mississippi.
President Barack Obama, who was criticized as reacting too slowly to the spill, said the government will keep pressure on BP, and that "the job isn't done."
"We continue to hold BP and other responsible parties fully accountable for the damage they've done and the painful losses that they've caused," Obama said in a statement.
BP has paid out about $5 billion in claims for economic losses through a spill fund administered by Washington attorney Kenneth Feinberg. The spill wiped about $70 billion from BP's market value and spurred it to replace its gaffe-prone British chief executive with an American, Bob Dudley.
"At BP we regret that the accident happened and the impact it has had on the environment of the Gulf Coast and the people living there," Dudley wrote in an op-ed in the Wall Street Journal on Wednesday.
Also on Wednesday, BP sued Cameron International Corp, the Houston-based company that made the blowout preventer, the fail-safe device that failed to automatically shut in BP's Macondo well.
(Additional reporting by Leigh Coleman and Michael Peltier, writing by Chris Baltimore; editing by Mary Milliken, Vicki Allen, Martin Howell)