Flickr Photo by dsb nola
One hundred days after the Deepwater Horizon oil rig exploded creating the worst environmental disaster in the world’s history, those who live down along the Gulf coast in the areas that have been most impacted are standing strong and reminding the world that, while the well gushing oil may have been capped and while BP CEO Tony Hayward may be going to Siberia, the disaster is not over.
Elizabeth Cook, a Louisiana native, said she’s “lived in New Orleans most of [her] life” and “when this happened, [her] sense of anger and grief moved her to begin to talk to friends about organizing some sort of people’s response.” She had been organizing post-Katrina on the housing issue because after the hurricane there was a real situation with lack of housing, which produced a huge homeless problem.
She connected with a group called the Emergency Committee to Stop the Gulf Oil Disaster and helped organize a People’s Summit that took place on June 19th. She has been organizing protests, press conferences, meetings, gathering data, creating fact sheets, and writing about the disaster in the Gulf ever since.
Cook described the current situation:
“We don’t know how long the dispersant is going to remain in the water with the oil, how long it will take to break down the dispersant and/or the oil. We’re not sure of the full impact on our marine life and our wildlife and also the government and BP are not forthcoming with scientific information about this. Certain areas of the Gulf have been reopened for fishing and their testing the seafood for oil but they aren’t testing it for dispersants…
… We want to remind folks and make people aware this is not over. We’ve got 1.8 billion gallons of toxic dispersant that was dumped in the Gulf and also sprayed pretty close to shore in Barataria Bay and along the shoreline of the Gulf coast. We are continuing to see the effects of this toxic chemical. We need to be vigilant. We need to demand accountability. We need to demand remediation and bio-remediation.“
Robert Desmarais, also someone who lives in New Orleans, said he’s been back since the city flooded after Katrina (the federal walls broke along the canals in his neighborhood and he was unable to come back to where he lived for a while). Now that “this volcano in the Gulf” has erupted, Sullivan explains “it just hit me very hard. I’d come back to the city, redid the house, got very involved in politics and I’m [now] facing exile again. I’m angry.”
For people like Desmarais, the worst-case scenario is a real possibility. Desmarais said it’s “really sad to think that if something happened in this hurricane season a lot of people including me probably wouldn’t want to come back to a city that had been flooded by oil as well as water. A lot of us see that [if that happened] it would be the end of the city. And, a lot of people are hurt, really hurt.”
The plight of fishermen in the Gulf, as a result of the disaster, is especially disconcerting for Desmarais.
“The real crisis is along the Gulf — Mississippi, Alabama, where my family is from. Those people fish for a living. I’ve had students who have left school at the age of 16 because they figured they were going to do what their father and grandfather had done. They were going to be a shrimper. They were going to be a fisherman. And, that’s all they knew. That’s all they wanted. They loved the life. It wasn’t just a way of earning a living. And now not only do they have no means of earning a living any longer but that whole lifestyle – going out in the boat in the morning, being in the water, being with friends and relatives—that’s being poisoned.”
Those impacted—for example, the people in the oyster industry who are having to close up shop—are going to be compensated for the economic and emotional trauma being endured. Right? Partially, at least. In full? Highly unlikely.
According to Cook, Kenneth Feinberg, the pay czar administering the BP escrow fund, is working for BP (although he claims to be independent) and saying “folks have to make a decision as to what their long term damages are going to be now and accept the payouts now.”
“This is absurd. This is a contradiction because no one knows yet what the long-term damages or impacts of the toxic oil and dispersant are going to be on the livelihoods of people down here. Yet, they’re being asked to make a decision now as to what kind of monetary payout to accept,” said Cook. “And this is outrageous. There should be a national cry. Folks should not be put in these positions. This is unfair, unjust and criminal.”
In addition to this apparent corporate scheming to escape accountability and responsibility, another scheme continues on. Those down along the Gulf still are unconvinced that information is flowing properly. They do not think they know what is happening and many are skeptical that the oil has in fact stopped leaking into the Gulf.
“Personally, I was lied to twice by coast guards,” explains Desmarais. “A coast guard told me dispersants weren’t harmful,” which was contrary to scientific information Sullivan has been reading.
Desmarais added, “Residents haven’t been told how much oil was gushing out. And, the “worst thing was that the Coast Guard ordered under penalty of arrest for a felony and a $40,000 fine that no one” could get within sixty-five feet of a prohibited site. At that point we went to see the ACLU and we complained about this.”
Cook spoke with someone with a nonprofit organization in Louisiana monitoring the Gulf’s water and he said he got the “necessary permit to go within 65 feet but they had since laid boom so he could only get within 80 feet.” She added, “I spoke to a Louisiana Wildlife and Fisheries person who explained that you don’t want people trampling around Barrier Islands where chicks are yet.” There would be no problem except:
“We have got to be able to somehow assess our damages. We have got to be able to see, to witness, to document. With all of the clampdown on information, the purpose isn’t just to protect the birds, the islands where they are nesting, it’s to clampdown on the flow of information.”
Residents are relying on fishermen for information and, because they aren’t being told how polluted their environment is, people have gone ahead and are testing their own rainwater to “circumvent the clampdown” and do what they can to get the data needed to stay healthy and as free of toxic chemicals as possible.
There are some residents finding a sliver of hope and optimism in the midst of what some think is a disaster with no end in sight. Sullivan shared his thoughts on people who have come down to the Gulf to organize, take action and give back to people in the Gulf.
He explained that he has “learned to appreciate the people who come here” as they are “animated by an amazing generosity for Louisiana.” He said it “touches me to the heart. Sometimes they are not so saddened by the immediate effect that they see, that my own depression might not allow me to see. And they wake up to possibilities that stimulate me quite a bit and get me energized again with hope. For their energy and inspiration I’m very glad to see them here.”
People have come here with the intent to reach out to residents and help them confront BP and the government. People like Frederick-Douglass Knowles, an English professor, spoke with a member of the Emergency Committee and within weeks, left his home in Connecticut to travel down to the Gulf and hear stories from people.
Knowles didn’t know any of the people he would be meeting, where he would be staying or what plans he would be taking part in until he got to the Gulf, but what he did know was that he would hear stories from people like Desmarais. He said that he now has stories he can take back to Connecticut when he returns home.
“What I’ve witnessed is a very strong presence of strong-spirited people in New Orleans. They have been through a lot,” said Knowles. “They went through Hurricane Katrina years ago and they are saying, ‘You know, we’re not going to take this lyin’ down.’”
Knowles hasn’t made it to the “frontlines” or the coast but he has talked with a few residents, people like one lady he remembers who lives on the coast and her yard is the ocean. Her backyard has become “an oil swamp.” She is breathing “toxic fumes every single day” and there’s nothing she can do; this is her home.
When Knowles arrived, he learned the Emergency Committee would be organizing for “100 Days of Outrage,” which takes place today, July 30th. The event meant to promote the organizing of 100 different actions across the nation in response to the ongoing situation in the Gulf moved Knowles to contribute his energy and spirit to the creation of a “100 Days of Outrage: Collective Piece,” a collective poem one hundred verses long made up of 4-line verses from one hundred different people expressing their poetic reaction to the disaster in the Gulf.
He now thinks people all over the country should come down here and spend some time seeing what has happened through their own eyes so they can really get a sense of what has taken place here.
Actions all over the country are taking place as a result of "100 Days of Outrage." For example, Burlington, VT will hold a Rally and Speak Out Against BP in Burlington City Hall Park. In Kalamazoo, Michigan, they will be marking the 100th Day with a protest action to call attention to their city’s recent oil disaster that has unleashed millions of gallons of oil into a major Michigan river that runs through their city. And, in Chicago, there will be a demonstration against Nalco, makers of Corexit.
Thousands if not millions will be taking snapshots of themselves with a sign or quote on the snapshot. They will be posted on the StopGulfOilDisaster.org website for everyone to see how millions aren’t giving up on the people who are down in the Gulf still suffering from this disaster. (If you would like to have a photo posted and participate in this effort, send it to firstname.lastname@example.org.)