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, Miss.; and Mobile, Ala., to learn 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 300 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 who 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 transport 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 losses in Louisiana. Today, about 8,200 miles of canals traverse the coastal wetlands. In addition, more than 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 that 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 number 11, 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 about 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 is 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 more than 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, Miss., 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 for Vietnamese Martyrs’ Catholic Church, which provides services for the estimated 8,000 Vietnamese people in the region, brought five fishermen and shrimpers to the meeting. They told us stories of fishermen in Biloxi and Mobile who were being offered half the interim settlement amounts as their counterparts in Louisiana by BP.

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 eliminate these communities, whose members 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 this 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.

This article was reprinted with permission from Switchboard.nrdc.org.