Stories From the Gulf Reveal BP Disaster Still Hurts

"We're still allowing polluters to handle the recovery operations, we're still allowing the same use of dispersants. The problems have not been fixed."
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“Never let injustice shut you up. When you see injustice you must stand up. It’s going to hurt sometimes. It’s going to cost you something. But you can never, never allow injustice in your presence and sit silently by and let it happen. You cannot do that.” – Gulf resident Linda St. Martin from Stories from the Gulf.

When BP’s Deepwater Horizon well exploded two years ago and spewed nearly 200 million gallons of Louisiana crude into one of the world’s most productive fisheries, people of the Gulf prayed it would be a fleeting disaster. It took BP nearly three months to plug the blowout, and despite assurances from government and industry scientists that a crisis largely had been averted, many fishermen and residents of the Gulf knew that was not the end of the oil.

Now, two years later, many on the front lines of this disaster are still worried about their livelihoods and the future health of the Gulf fisheries -- as well as the people exposed to the toxins that washed and blew ashore. BP used millions of gallons of chemical dispersant to break up the oil and drop it underwater, where many say it still lies, churned up with every storm and blown into the bayous and beaches with every strong south wind. New studies show the sticky tar balls are a potential threat to beachgoers and contain toxins like dangerous vibrio bacteria which can poison fish consumers.

Meanwwhile, dolphins continue to die in record numbers. Studies show troubling signs of stresses in the fisheries that make some wonder if another shoe will drop as it did after the Exxon Valdez disaster, when the herring population crashed four years later and has never been the same. No one knows what the impacts will be in the Gulf, and that’s perhaps the greatest stress on the hardscrabble fishing communities trying to eke out a living there.

Just a few months after BP plugged the volcanic well in July, 2010, NRDC teamed up with StoryCorps and BridgetheGulf to interview Gulf residents from all walks of life -- fishermen, surfers, shopkeepers -- all impacted by the worst maritime oil disaster in history. Their stories were part of NRDC's film, Stories from the Gulf, which aired on Discovery Planet Green around the first anniversary of the blowout. Many people in the film talked passionately about the heartache and distress of seeing their beautiful Gulf environment polluted by endless waves of toxic crude, putting their proud fishing culture and livelihoods at risk.

Now, on the second anniversary of this catastrophe, many say their stories have changed little. For some it's gotten worse, especially for those in still struggling fishing communities. Take Kindra Arnesen's family, for instance. The wife of a commercial fisherman and shrimper from Venice and Buras, LA, Kindra says her family continues to suffer health problems from the toxic oil and dispersants that enveloped her community in lower Plaquemines Parish. She says her two young children are still sick with unusual infections and illnesses they never had before the oily assault attacked her bayou community.

Kindra’s husband David has given up shrimping due to the dramatic drop off in shrimp catch in the Barataria Bay area last year, relying on deep-sea fishing which Kindra says has turned up unusual numbers of snapper and amberjack with lesions and bellies empty of bait fish that are usually plentiful in the Gulf.

Kindra Arnesen and her family have put their house in Buras up for sale -- a house they rebuilt after it was destroyed by Katrina in 2005. They are hoping to move to another fishing community in the Carolinas. But those plans are on hold until they can sell their house. Right now, she says, no one around them has the money or the interest to buy anything.

“People are sick and struggling to survive down here. The fisheries are collapsing around here... normally we see balls of bait fish everywhere out in the gulf, now we see nothing.”

Arnesen is particularly upset nothing seems to be done about the ongoing oil spills she says are still happening frequently. Flights by On Wings of Care into the Gulf routinely show oil sheens stretching along the oil-rig studded seascape.

Meanwhile, Congress has failed to pass comprehensive legislation that would improve safety standards for offshore oil drilling, a fact noted this week by members of the Presidential Oil Commission who investigated the Deepwater Horizon accident. Members of the commission gave Congress a D for its efforts so far.

“Two years later not one law has been passed to protect our environment and health,”

Arnesen says.

“It’s a systemic problem in the Gulf, complacency because of personal financial gain. Why should we continue to be the sacrifice zone while they continue to pump oil and are allowed to cut corners? They only thing the oil industry has learned is how to control their image.”

Not far from Kindra’s fishing community, Byron Encalade’s oyster community is suffering too. Oysters were hit hard by the oil-dispersant mix and by fresh water diversions that were pushed out of the Mississippi River to keep oil out of the bayous. Today, the oyster beds in his area are still ruined, and Encalade, who is President of the Louisiana Oystermen Association, says he has no idea when or if they will return.

“Right now we have no signs of it coming back. There are no little oysters, no spat. It’s too early to know when the bleeding will stop and even after the bleeding stops I don’t believe I will see it return the way it was three years ago.”

The impact has been particularly hard on his community. Locals don’t have the money to repair their boats or do the protective maintenance that is necessary to make them seaworthy in the future, Encalade says. Without income, he says his community is rapidly running out of resources to survive; some families are relying on social security checks from their elders to feed their kids.

“It’s devastating to our community. We have no money to repair our boats and do maintenance. The whole community is on the verge of collapse... I’m hearing the same thing from people elsewhere in the heart of the estuaries of Louisiana. We used to think we were recession proof and self sustaining. Bad government policies after Katrina wiped out our farms and BP has wiped out our fishing. The two things kept us going have been taken from us.”

Commercial fishermen aren’t the only ones impacted by the disaster. Charter boat captain and fishing-hunting guide Ryan Lambert’s business is still feeling the impacts of a damaged fishery that he believes BP is responsible for. Lambert says speckled trout, a prized bayou sport fish, has virtually disappeared from areas of the bayou. Lambert reports his overall fishing business is down 50 percent. “The jury is still out,” he says. “But the last bait store down here closed this year and this place has turned into a ghost town. Pretty soon there won’t be anything left of lower Plaquemines. It’s a scary thing to be on the dying end of this.”

Louisiana shrimper Darla Rooks has suffered ongoing health problems from oil exposure she says has resulted in a plethora of health issues such as dizziness, memory loss, rashes, nerve damage and headaches. Rooks says she is feeling much better after recently undergoing more than a month of detox treatment by Dr. Mike Robichaux sponsored by the Louisiana Environmental Action Network.

Darla and Todd Rooks Photo by Lisa Whiteman/NRDC

Last year, Rooks says she and her husband Todd couldn’t make enough money to pay their expenses after shrimping in the once-rich fishing grounds of Barataria Bay. They say they have stopped eating shrimp from the area. This year they plan to try shrimping in western Louisiana where the oil impacts were less intrusive.

“We barely had a freeze this year and some people are saying there are big shrimp out there. But fishing in this area is stressed out to the max. Many fishing families are struggling. Some are beyond struggling. They’re near death.”

Still, Rooks has hope for the future but, like many, she no longer trusts the oil industry. “It’s been rough, but after the detox program, I may not be making money but at least I’ve got my life back…we’re still here, and so is the oil. We may still have oil on our hands, but BP has blood on their hands.”

Buras, LA, fisherman JJ Creppel says he’s still having health problems too, including worsening asthma and bronchitis that he blames on the oil and chemicals still in the water. His wife has broken out in bad rashes that doctors cannot explain. Last year, the white shrimp season was a bust for fishermen in the area, and Creppel says he doesn’t know what the future will bring.

“Most of the people around here have sold everything they could to make ends meet. But we don’t know what will happen this year. There are still tar balls coming onto the beaches by the shovelful. They’re finding dolphins and turtles dead everywhere. People are starting to fight with each other more and more.”

And Creppel says he doesn’t have much faith that the new BP settlement will do much better than the claims process under former Gulf Coast Claims Facility Administrator Kenneth Feinberg. “They’re still talking about trying to help the people, but this is killing us while we all wait for the shrimp to come back. It may never come back.”

Louisiana fisherman JJ Creppel Photo: Lisa Whiteman/NRDC

Some Louisiana residents are more hopeful the fishing will return, saying it already has improved in some areas. Wendy Billiot runs a recreational fishing camp near Theriot, Camp DuLarge, whose business was devastated by the spill in 2010. Billiot says even though she had paperwork to prove it, all of her claims were denied by Feinberg’s claim process. Last year, she says, business was “very slim because of the perception that the fishing was bad.”

But Billiot says the recreational fishing in the area is “great,” and that business is picking up. But she says without a final offer payment from BP, her business still is suffering from an uncertain future. “If BP would have paid us for our lost business, I could stop worrying so much about the future.”

In Alabama, the seafood business is starting to pick up for Hollie LeJeune, whose restaurant and seafood retailing operation was nearly wiped out after the blowout. Last year was a particularly tough year, she says, and the family gathered together in September to decide whether they should shut the doors for good. They decided to give it until Christmas. “It was a close call last year,” she says, “but we just persevered.”

LeJeune says there are more tourists coming this year and business seems to be picking up. But she and her family still know they are not in the clear. It’s still hard to get oysters and she knows scientists are still unsure about the long terms impacts of the massive spill.

“It’s a wait and see kind of thing. Three years from now we don’t know if we will be able to harvest shrimp or crab... BP says everything is back to normal. But our business is not back to normal. Last year it was off 30-40 percent... this was BP’s mess. With a hurricane we know we can be back in business in a week or so. But with this kind of thing we just don’t feel we’re back in business yet.”

Mississippi coast resident and environmental activist Linda St. Martin says little has changed in terms of protecting the health and environment of the Gulf. Tar balls are still washing ashore, oil companies are drilling more and deeper, and she says the rules and regulations are still virtually the same. Former governor Haley Barbour has proposed increased oil drilling off the coast, and that worries her.

“I don’t have any confidence things have changed for the better. We’re still allowing polluters to handle the recovery operations, we’re still allowing the same use of dispersants. The problems have not been fixed. We still have the same contingency plans we had before... the regulations need to be modernized and updated. We’re just setting ourselves up to have another massive failure.”

For Louisiana commercial fisherman George Barisich, the future is still a huge question mark. Last year, he says he lost more than $30,000 trying to shrimp and oyster due to the high cost of fuel and low price of shrimp. He has no idea if the settlement proposal will pay out enough money for fishermen like him to survive. And the ongoing record number of dolphin and turtle deaths have him concerned the future does not bode well for the fisheries.

“We’re hoping for the best but preparing for the worst. It seems like BP is paying a high priced poker game with payouts and with our lives in the pot... I’m lucky my wife works too. But the stress is eating us all up. With Katrina there was a start and a stop. But with this oil stuff we don’t know when it will come back.”

That may be the most difficult challenge facing people in the Gulf today. The stress of the unknown. As the second memorial to the country’s greatest oil disaster comes and goes, the stories of thousands of lives still struggling in these once-thriving Gulf fishing communities will fade even further from media attention.

Meanwhile they wait and wonder if the Gulf will ever be the same.

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