Vietnamese and Cambodian fishermen in Village L'est and Versailles in New Orleans East were among the first residents to return after Katrina, only to see their livelihoods crushed a few years later by the BP spill. In early April, 41 Asian-American fishermen sued BP in U.S. Eastern District of Louisiana court in New Orleans, claiming discrimination in the company's Vessels of Opportunity program. Other groups of fishermen have also sued over treatment in the VOO, which hired boats to remove spilled oil.
Asian Americans were underrepresented in the program given their numbers in the Gulf fishing community. Over half of all commercial fishermen affected by the spill were Vietnamese and Cambodian Americans but they accounted for less than 10 percent of the vessels hired by BP, the suit says. Of the 5,000 vessels that BP engaged, only 350 belonged to Vietnamese and Cambodian Americans.
Plaintiffs in the case are represented by attorney Ryan Beasley in Harvey, La.. The suit says that during the VOO program, BP sent emails to Danos and Curole Marine Contractors, LLC in Larose, La. and DRC Emergency Services, LLC, in Mobile, Ala., telling them not to hire vessels owned by Vietnamese and Cambodian Americans. The class action suit was filed against BP, Danos and Curole, and DRC Emergency, and seeks damages for civil rights violations and employment discrimination. The suit says that 4,000 Asian Americans were affected by BP's policies, and claims that defendants violated Section 1981 of the Civil Rights Act of 1866 -- which says all Americans have the same rights as white citizens.
Why didn't BP want to hire Asian Americans? Attorneys and others point to the cost of translating legal language, a preference for workers outside the area closest to the spill, and cronyism -- between BP and its contractors and certain boat captains hired by the VOO.
Last week, Plaquemines Parish President Billy Nungesser said "I can't absolutely say whether or not there was discrimination against Asian American fishermen in the VOO. But we do know that local people were passed over in the program, and that was because they'd come back to the community and say there's oil all around."
Nungesser continued, saying "BP preferred to hire people who didn't live here, didn't have a passion for this area and who wouldn't let other people know what they'd seen." He said local fishing vessels were tied to docks while out-of-state boats were in the area working for the VOO.
"We asked but never got a list of boats that were working in the program," Nungesser said. "That's absurd. We wanted to make sure local boats and fishermen hurt by the spill were being hired," especially since the waters in southeast Louisiana were closed to fishing.
In addition to New Orleans East, Asian American fishermen live in Jefferson Parish and in Belle Chasse, Boothville-Venice and other Plaquemines Parish communities, along with Terrebonne Parish.
Local fishermen complained in mid-2010 that recreational boats from Florida and Texas were floating by, working for the VOO in Louisiana waters while their boats were idle. But some Asian-American vessels and fishermen were hired by BP. A local staffing service ran ads in mid-2010 for Cambodian translators to work in the VOO in Venice in Plaquemines Parish. The starting salary was $17 to $18 an hour for translators, plus overtime and free room and board. That sounded pretty good if it hadn't been for the toxins rising from oil lapping the shores around Venice.
Last week, BP spokesman Scott Dean had no comment on the Asian American lawsuit or on translation services that BP provided to VOO workers.
Nungesser said "unfortunately, it takes a lawsuit to get to the bottom of what happened. BP hasn't been forthright with people, and we've learned that we can't trust what the company says. It takes lawsuits and Congressional hearings to find out."
A mid-2010 statement from the Asian Pacific American Society of New Orleans or APAS discussed U.S. District Court Judge Ginger Berrigan's May 2, 2010 decision that several provisions in BP's cleanup contract with fishermen and volunteers were illegal -- including terms requiring BP's exemption from liability, along with complete confidentiality required from workers and a demand that BP be listed on volunteers' insurance policies. Contracts handed out to Asian-American fishermen at the John Alario Center on the West Bank on a Sunday in mid-2010 included language that should have been removed after Judge Berrigan's decision, APAS warned. APAS told fishermen that even though illegal wording may have remained in Vietnamese versions of the contracts, those provisions couldn't be enforced.
Tuan Nguyen, deputy director of Mary Queen of Vietnam Community Development Center in New Orleans East, said last week that many Asian-American fishermen, boat captains and deckhands live near the center and work out of Plaquemines, Jefferson and Terrebonne Parishes. "We've done a lot of advocacy work with Vietnamese-American fishermen since the spill," he said. "And we work with Catholic Charities to help them pay their bills. But we don't comment on litigation."
Meanwhile, Asian fishermen, like others affected by the spill, have struggled with the BP claims process. "There was confusion in the Asian-American fishing community about how to file claims with the Gulf Coast Claims Facility for economic losses," Nguyen said. "People tried but often didn't understand how to navigate the system. Some of them took $5,000 final payments recently out of desperation and a need for cash, and gave up their rights to sue BP. Many of them are unhappy about that now."
For Asian American and all fishermen who want to learn their rights and need help with BP claims, Nungesser recommended Seedco's newly-expanded Southeast Louisiana Fisheries Assistance Center Facility, which opened earlier this year next to his office in Belle Chasse. "These people are doing a great job of helping fishermen get back on their feet and assisting them with legal matters," he said. The old office was in a temporary facility down the street.
Before the BP spill, Asian Americans held 75 percent of shrimp licenses in Louisiana for vessels longer than 50 feet, according to data compiled by David Burrage, Mississippi State University extension professor of Marine Resources. And they held more than 60 percent of shrimp licenses for vessels longer than 45 feet in Mississippi and Alabama. A third of Gulf commercial boats with federal shrimp permits were owned and operated by Vietnamese-Americans before the spill.
What's more, many seafood processing plants in Louisiana, Mississippi and Alabama are staffed mainly by Asian Americans, particularly of Vietnamese descent. And of an estimated 40,000 Vietnamese living in these three Gulf states -- including 30,000 in Louisiana -- one in three works in the seafood industry, according to Dr. Burrage in 2009. In fact, incomes of most of Louisiana's Vietnamese-American households depend on seafood in one way or another.
As for the VOO program, which was closed in 2010, BP temporarily reactivated it in August and September of last year because of seepage near its Macondo well.
This article was published in The Louisiana Weekly in the April 30, 2012 edition.