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Human Cost of Oil - Gulf Coast Oil Spill

Al Huang

Posted May 13, 2010

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On Tuesday, a group of NRDC staff, including our President Frances Beinecke, spent the day meeting with local fishermen, oystermen, shrimpers, and environmental justice leaders from Louisiana; Biloxi, Mississippi; and Mobile, Alabama to learn about how the BP Gulf Coast oil spill will impact their communities and what NRDC can do to help support them.

It quickly became clear that this oil spill is way more than just an environmental disaster of herculean proportions, but also another chapter in the long history of struggle against discrimination, environmental toxics, and poverty in the Gulf Coast region.

The day began with a tour of the Grand Bayou and Pointe A La Hache community, which have existed in the heart of the Plaquemine Parish of Louisiana for over 3oo years.  The Grand Bayou’s story is a cautionary tale of how oil exploration in the region has resulted in threatening the very livelihood of those that have lived in harmony for generations with the local ecology.  Sustainable local fishing, which the locals call a “gift” that they have passed on from generation to generation, is a way of life in the region.  Grand Bayou is teeming with oyster beds that put food on the table, fill countless oyster po’ boy sandwiches, and serve as one of the few economic opportunities available to locals. The oyster bed leases and the boats locals own have sustained their families for generations.  The oil spill might change that.

One of our guides, Byron Encalade, who is president of the Louisiana Oysterman Association in Pointe A La Hache and a leader for the African-American oystermen in the region, recalled how the oil spill -- which at the time we visited was 1 mile from the Grand Bayou -- sadly reminded him of his father’s oysterman’s motto.  At a young age his is father said, “Take what you need for today, but leave some for tomorrow.”  As the oil loomed nearby, Byron worried there would be nothing left for tomorrow and that he would not be able to pass this resource on to his own children.

Byron explained how even before the spill, oil exploration had already destroyed large parts of Louisiana’s bayou and wetlands. 

In Louisiana there are 10,000 miles of underwater oil infrastructure that transports barge-mounted oil and gas exploration and production equipment and houses pipelines that transport the oil and gas.  Canal dredging itself has been linked to more than half of the coastal wetland loses in Louisiana.  Today, about 8,200 miles of canals traverse the coastal wetlands.  In addition, over 152 pipelines come ashore from the outer continental shelf to the Louisiana Coast.

When the Army Corp of Engineers and oil companies dug the canals through the wetlands to lay down oil and gas infrastructure, they often failed to refill them, leading to significant saltwater intrusions into the marshlands, which threaten the sensitive oyster beds the community depends on.

Oil infrastructure has led to the quick erosion of the wetlands, which were damaged further when Hurricane Katrina hit in 2005. 

Katrina was a major blow to oystermen in the region, it damaged their oyster beds and destroyed their boats.  Many locals, like Byron, were just beginning to recover from the economic and ecological losses that came with the hurricane. Unfortunately, the general consensus is that the BP oil spill will present an even more frightening challenge and may irreparably destroy the land which is their livelihood.

After we left Grand Bayou, additional oyster bed closures were announced by the LA Department of Health and Hospitals, making the total districts closed to oyster harvesting eleven, almost half of the 27 oyster harvest districts in the Plaquemines Parish.

In New Orleans, we met with local environmental justice leaders who were concerned that fishermen were not only losing their livelihood and way of life, but were also being exploited by BP.  As many commercial fishermen are now out of work due to closures to their fishing areas, BP is offering some of them jobs assisting in the cleanup efforts. This poses a number of potential health issues as Dr. Gina Solomon has blogged on here.

After Katrina, as thousands of communities sought recovery funds to rebuild their homes and lives communities quickly learned that claims processes were often slow and designed for failure. This time around, locals know that they need to be better organized to make demands, and that they don’t have to settle for what was given to them. 

Monique Harden, Co-Director of Advocates for Environmental Human Rights, explained how fishermen seeking damage claims under the Oil Pollution Act were being forced to accept varying amounts as interim payoffs, some being asked to accept this payment and then to waive rights to any future claims.  In response, Monique’s group created a know your rights fact sheet for workers facing challenges.

Diem Nguyen, Executive Director of the Mary Queen of Vietnam Community Development Corporation in New Orleans East explained that in these negotiations for damages, claim forms were not being translated in Vietnamese.  Moreover, when meeting with BP officials to better understand the claims process, translators were not available.  How were fishermen supposed to collect money they were entitled to while protecting their rights if the process for doing so was not in their native language?  It is estimated that over 20,000 Vietnamese-Americans live in southeastern Louisiana and many of them are commercial fishermen and shrimpers.  Many of them do not speak English.

Shortly after we left New Orleans, Louisiana Environmental Action Network released a short report on EPA's air monitoring data that showed some troublesome indications that the oil spill was negatively affecting the air quality and possibly the health for people working, living, and fishing in Venice, LA.

In Biloxi, Mississippi, fishermen and shrimpers shared similar concerns, but also worried that they were being undercut, as compared to their counterparts in Louisiana.  Thao Vu, Director of Mercy Housing, Vietnamese Martyrs’ Catholic Church, which provides services for the estimated 8,000 Vietnamese people in the region, brought 5 fishermen and shrimpers to the meeting.  They told us stories of fishermen in Biloxi and Mobile that were being offered half the interim settlement amounts by BP, as their counterparts in Louisiana.

In times of emergency, it is the most vulnerable communities (low-income, people of color, and immigrants) who receive the least protections and benefits. We learned from Katrina that if you were poor, you were more likely to be flooded out of your home, denied benefits, denied recovery funds, denied a right to return, and often would be left with a neighborhood wrought with toxic contamination in the soil.

As I heard these heartbreaking stories of struggle from independent commercial fishermen, I wondered whether the oil spill would not only eliminate the wealth of seafood and wildlife in the gulf coast, but also these communities, who have already faced so many challenges to their way of life.  As we begin to learn about the ecological cost of the oil spill, I grow concerned that we may overlook how this oil spill also affects communities that depend on its fragile ecosystem.

Moving forward, I left the Gulf Coast knowing that:

  • BP must be held accountable.  As my colleague Regan Nelson wrote, “We must work to ensure that BP is doing everything possible to protect from harm the people, wildlife and wild places not yet injured by the spill, and to facilitate recovery and rehabilitation of those who have been injured.” 
  • Information provided to the community must be transparent, readily available, and translation provided.
  • BP must make the claims process fair and transparent for everyone affected by the oil disaster.
  • Workers engaged in the cleanup of the oil must be provided with adequate training and personal protective equipment.

NRDC is committed to providing legal, policy, and technical assistance to these communities in the present and in the long term.  As after Katrina, we will work with many of the communities to identify what issues are of greatest need and then match our strengths and skill sets to make a real difference.  As dolphins, turtles, and other wildlife wash ashore, let’s not forget the human face to this disaster and the impact that will be felt in communities all over the Gulf Coast for many years to come.

*The Gulf Coast Fund (GCF) is a foundation that funds all of the community-based groups and individuals mentioned in this blog.  GCF is taking action to address the BP oil spill and working directly with community leaders and frontline responders. If you want to donate money to directly help Gulf Coast communities, NRDC encourages you to donate to the Gulf Coast Fund.

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Bill G.May 14 2010 02:41 AM

Okay, give me a break, was watching Anderson Cooper who is good, but why are not his guest being more candid like this.

BP is a for profit business, and its an excellent biz descsion to not allow media and such to get close to the spill. It helps their bottom line to minimize, justify and rationalize the spill. Thus more profit, its about profit, plain and simple. I own a biz and I belive in profit, just not at the expense of exploiting the environment.

If they can spend millions on finding, drilling, and exploring for oil, why in the heck did they not figure out how to stop a spill that could occur, because that cuts into profit, again plain and simple.

And stupid america we just let them do it, what the hell is wrong with our environmental laws that we cannot force the pre-safety measures on spills or in this case gushers.

This oil company is sickly rich, and yet what they give us in return is drilling irresponsibility.

Why is not Obama as much as I like him, not putting the hammer down and getting the coast guard there and implement military assistance, then billing BP, hum, what is the wait, sorta like how long it took Bush to get
aide to Katrina.

Some greedy white collar guy in the government gets more attention, jail time and such for stealing say 50k. But not the oil companies, is the gov afriad to piss them off and they drill outside USA, are we that addicted to oil?

I mean somebody help me out here, am I out of line?

Thinking not,

Maximo Gomez NacerMay 17 2010 09:42 PM

The human cost of oil spills goes far beyond the lost of income of people living in the littoral. The real human cost of the dependence on oil is associated with the cost of the war, the industry of explosives to maintain it and the lost of numerous human lives. Here it is good news: We do not need the oil in order to produce heat, or to conserve our food, or to produce light or to transport a cargo from any size. Gravity can do it for us by simply using the water that comes from the sky or the water from the immensity of the oceans. Any small community -virtually anywhere on the planet-can develop self sustainable resources. Human work becomes again the source of wealth and in a world where the natural resources can be renewed infinitely by human work; the sense of loving your neighbor as you love yourself can be practiced as a religion. The value of harvesting food and its abundance will bring renewed meaning to the family values and a new connotation to human life.

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