A Way of Life at Risk on the Anniversary of the BP Oil Spill

On April 20, 2010, an explosion on BP's Deepwater Horizon oil rig kicked off the largest offshore oil spill in U.S. history, as nearly five million barrels of oil spewed into the Gulf Coast over the next several months. Most of that oil is still there, and will be for years to come.

Any damage to natural resources has disproportionate impacts on the health and well-being of low-income and vulnerable populations whose livelihoods depend on health coasts and fisheries. The spill was no different: communities - particularly fishing communities --are still struggling to cope with the impacts on their jobs, families, and neighbors.

Oxfam America had been working in the Gulf Coast for several years before the spill, focusing our attention on the challenges facing people of the coastal communities: sea-level rise, hurricanes, struggling economies, and cultures at risk.

Since the spill, we've been working to reduce social vulnerability of the people most at-risk, and to find ways to employ impacted workers in the many upcoming coastal restoration projects that will be funded by monies coming to the region through the fines and penalties against BP and its business partners.

For all the attention paid to the damage to the environment or impacts on tourism, all too little attention has been paid to the people in the coastal communities where tarballs from the spill continue to wash ashore four years later. In small communities like Dulac, LA, East Biloxi, MS or Bayou La Batre, AL every day Oxfam and our partners hear new stories of how this disaster continues to impact low-income families. To highlight these challenges we recently published a new research report, based on interviews with residents along the coast's fishing communities, on the impact of the spill called, A Way of Life at Risk.

We found along the coast people are used to natural disasters. Hurricanes come just about every year--some more ferocious than others. Still people in the Gulf's coastal fishing communities know how to prepare for storms, and then once they're passed, how to pull together to rebuild and recover. The work isn't easy. And there are still too many individuals that slip through the cracks and are unable to rebound. But most are able to get back to work and to the waters: harvesting shrimp, oysters, crabs, and fish.

The oil spill four years ago was a totally different story. It was a man-made, technological disaster, and it lasted for months. And it's still going on. The oil is still there, in the estuaries and in the Gulf.

The problem now is the uncertainty. If you're in an industry affected by the spill, you just don't know what the future is going to hold. The oil has affected the waters, and the people, in so many different ways. You can't predict where the seafood catch will be down. The spill decimated some of the reefs, wetlands and areas where people trawl for seafood. But not everywhere.

Telley Madina, Oxfam's Gulf Coast Policy Advisor in New Orleans, whose family has deep roots in the seafood industry once told me, "I know so many guys teetering on the brink. I see older people in the industry starting to settle in their minds that they may not be able to fish again. Oysters haven't come back to the way it was before the spill in a lot of places. A lot of those guys who would have been working on boats, now they don't know what they're going to do. They get by on odd jobs, financial assistance from others. Some people have moved out of the bayou and moved to the city, taken on regular jobs. It's the younger guys who don't know whether to wait it out."

This has impacts across the family and community. In a lot of cases, a fisherman's wife was also in the business, too; she may have worked on the boat or handled the finances and ran the operation. Some have gone to do other things, but sometimes they're just waiting, too. The disaster has also stranded the next generation. In the past, most kids in families in the fishing business trawled on the family boat to make money in summertime; now they don't. If you had dreams of taking over your dad's boat one day, now it may be out of the question.

Along the coast, there is a deep culture of self-reliance. People have always taken care of their own, made things work and didn't like to rely on government unless they had to. The spill challenged that, since now in order to be made whole, you had to rely on a judge or a company like BP making things right, and a hope that the environment and fisheries would rebound.

With all these unknowns, community leaders and civic associations become even more important. In the seafood world, leaders of groups like Byron Encalade, of the Louisiana Oysterman Association, and Clint Guidry of the Louisiana Shrimp Association are really unsung heroes playing a crucial role of holding their communities together and telling their story. Both of them travel around the state, and piece together the information about the different government and legal battles around the spill. They go to Taskforce meetings, to Baton Rouge or New Orleans or Mississippi, to tell the stories of their community and to try and make sense of the state of the recovery.

Many questions remain about what happens in the Gulf four years on, but as monies start to come to the coast the public needs to be vigilant and look out for these still suffering communities. Combined, billions of dollars in resources are potentially available to do important work to repair fisheries and communities under legislation like the RESTORE Act, the Natural Resource Damage Assessment and the National Fish and Wildlife Foundation for restoration, with billions more at stake in continued legal battle between the Department of Justice and BP. But these funds can just as easily slip away into boondoggles, like we saw too often in the aftermath of hurricane Katrina.

If we can hold decision-makers accountable and ensure transparent processes, these funds can go a long way toward helping repair communities. A recent Oxfam report, together with the Center for American Progress, found that productive ecosystem restoration projects can have fifteen dollars of economic returns for every dollar invested. They can also create over 17 jobs for every million dollars put into projects. That's an impact similar to investments in infrastructure projects and almost triple the impact of investments in oil and gas production. This is potentially a very powerful tool for low-income communities to restore our fisheries, and put people to work repairing our natural resources and building more resilient communities, particularly in our most vulnerable populations along the coast.