Friday, April 20, 2012

Two years on, anger and frustration on the Gulf Coast

A shorter version of this article appeared today in newspapers around the world through Agence France Presse, the newswire service.
Two years after the worst maritime oil spill in history, fishermen, scientists, and environmentalists up and down the US Gulf Coast warn that the disaster may be far from over. Dead dolphins keep washing up on shore in unprecedented numbers. Oil-coated corals reefs are dying in the deepwater. Eyeless shrimp are showing up in relatively empty fishing nets. Killifish, a minnow-like fish that is at the base of the food chain here, show signs of chemical poisoning.

Critics say offshore drilling safety and oversight remains woefully lacking. "Politics continues to triumph over common sense. It's outrageous that so little progress has been made to make offshore drilling safer," said Jacqueline Savitz, senior campaign director at the environmental group Oceana. "It's not a matter of whether there will be another oil spill, but when."

The April 20, 2010 explosion on the BP-leased Deepwater Horizon drilling rig killed 11 workers, blackened beaches in five US states and devastated the Gulf Coast's tourism and fishing industries. It took 87 days to cap BP's runaway well 5,000 feet (1,500 meters) below the surface which spewed some 4.9 million barrels (206 million gallons) of oil into the Gulf of Mexico.

In the aftermath of the spill, BP flooded the Gulf with nearly 2 million gallons of chemical dispersants. While BP says these chemicals broke up the oil, some scientists have said this just made it less visible, and sent the poisons deeper into the food chain.

Everyone here agrees that environmental problems on the coast date back to long before the well blew open. Decades of oil exploration had already sullied Gulf waters and shipping channels cut through wetlands hastened coastal erosion. Meanwhile, pollution from treatment plants has poisoned communities across the coast - especially in "cancer alley," the corridor of industrial facilities along the Mississippi River south of Baton Rouge. “BP is legally obligated to fix what they screwed up,” says Aaron Viles, deputy director of Gulf Restoration Network, a leading environmental organization active in the region. “But if you’re only obligated to put the ecosystem back to where it was April 19, 2010, why would we?”

“The Gulf is a robust ecosystem and it's been dying the death of a thousand cuts for a long time,” adds Viles. While it's too early to assess the long-term environmental impact, a host of recent studies published by the National Academy of Sciences and other respected institutions have shown troubling results, Viles said. "If you add them all up, it’s clear the oil is still in the ecosystem, it’s still having an effect.”

Wilma Subra, a chemist and Macarthur fellow who travels widely across the Gulf meeting with fishers and testing seafood and sediment samples for contamination, told AFP that we may be just at the beginning of this disaster. Subra says that in every community she visits, fishers show her shrimp born without eyes, fish with lesions, and crabs with holes in their shells. She says tarballs are still washing up on beaches across the region. “The oil is still subsurface in the gulf,” Subra says. “The oil is still present in the wetlands and estuaries and on the beaches. People are continuing to get exposed.”

Subra says that the reality she is seeing on the ground contrasts sharply with the image painted by BP. “There are potential new impacts that we haven’t even seen yet, but just based on the impacts we have seen it’s going to be a long time before recovery sets in,” says Subra, adding that the effects of the spill could continue for “generations.”

Theresa Dardar is among those who lives have been changed by the drilling disaster. She lives in Bayou Pointe-au-Chien, a Native American fishing community on Louisiana's Gulf Coast where her family has lived for 300 years. Dardar and her neighbors have seen their land disappear from under their feet within their lifetimes due to canals built by the oil companies to access wells. The canals brought salt water into freshwater marshes, helping cause the coastal erosion that sees Louisiana lose a football field of land every 45 minutes. The main street that runs through the community now disappears into the swamps, with telephone poles sticking out of the water.

Now, in addition to worries about disappearing land and increasing risk of hurricanes, she fears that her family’s livelihood is gone for good. Her husband used to pull in about $30,000 a year fishing the rich Gulf waters. Last year he only earned $5,000, Theresa said. She's afraid this year will be worse. “The first day of shrimp season, usually you catch a thousand pounds or more,” Dardar explained. “But he caught just 20 pounds. Usually you do really good the first day. We’ve never had a season like this.”

Statistics from the state of Louisiana indicated that white shrimp season, which started in August, was much lower than usual, although scientists say this could also be partially blamed on Mississippi flooding that happened last year. Oysters saw an even steeper dropoff, reporting the lowest harvest in at least 40 years. “I was angry, but now I just want things to get back to the way it was,” says Dardar. “But I know it’s not going to be over for years.”

BP has vowed to make residents of the Gulf "whole" and reimburse them for any "legitimate" economic damages. On Wednesday, it finalized a $7.8 billion settlement deal to settle thousands of claims from fishermen and others and has already paid out $6.3 billion to people and businesses who chose to sidestep the court process. It has also pledged $1 billion to early restoration projects and will likely be required to spend more once a lengthy environmental impact study is concluded.

"From the beginning, BP stepped up to meet our obligations to the communities in the Gulf Coast region, and we've worked hard to deliver on that commitment for nearly two years,” BP chief Bob Dudley said in a statement. "The proposed settlement represents significant progress toward resolving issues from the Deepwater Horizon accident and contributing further to economic and environmental restoration efforts along the Gulf Coast."

Dardar says money can't cure the deep emotional and social scars of potentially losing a beloved way of life. “How are you going to make us whole if we lose our fishing industry?" she told AFP. "I don’t think they can answer me."

That complaint is echoed in coastal communities across the five states affected by the BP spill. “We were the first to get hit, and we’re the worst to get hit,” said George Barisich, president of the United Commercial Fisherman’s Association, a group that supports Gulf Coast fishers.

Fishing is a huge part of the economy for the Gulf Coast. Around 40% of the seafood caught in the continental US comes from here. Many area fishermen were still recovering from Hurricane Katrina when the spill closed a third of Gulf waters to fishing for months.

Despite billions of dollars paid out by BP already, Barisich said that many fishers he knew had received only small payments of a few thousand dollars, and were now in danger of losing their homes. He said that production is down, and that also fears of contamination had reduced demand for Gulf Coast seafood, which had in turn brought down prices. “Production is down at least 70 percent,” compared to the year before the spill, he says. “And prices are still depressed thirty, forty, sixty percent.”

A third generation fisherman from St Bernard Parish south of New Orleans, Barisich employed eight people and pulled in annual profits of up to $100,000 in the years leading up to the spill. Last year he had two employees, and he lost $40,000. “You promised to make it right,” he says, referring to BP. “It was your mistake. And we’re suffering.”

Photo above: Cleanup workers attempt to scrub oil off of bird during June 2010 cleanup efforts.

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