It's only been two weeks since the April 20 explosion on the BP drilling rig killed 11 workers fifty miles off the coast of Louisiana and triggered an oil spill, but already local environmental justice advocates are saying the impact on communities of color could do more to wipe out the local economy than Hurricanes Katrina and Rita and the recession combined.
The oil spill, which BP has taken responsibility for but been unable to bring under control, threatens to cut off local communities from their primary source of food and livelihood "indefinitely," said Monique Harden, the co-director of Advocates for Environmental Human Rights, a New Orleans-based environmental justice group.
And now, many fishermen, already out of work since the federal government issued a 10-day ban on commercial and recreational fishing starting last Friday, are signing up for paid volunteer work to help BP with its cleanup efforts. Fishermen with boats are being paid nominal fees to ferry materials to and from shore and load the gigantic plastic containment booms that are supposed to keep oil from spreading further inland.
"We understand that the fishermen who are working with this cleanup are not being provided with any respiratory masks or anything to protect their lungs, just Tyvek suits and nitrile gloves," said Paul Orr, with Lower Mississippi Riverkeeper. Orr said that the crude oil that is spilling from 5,000 feet under the water contains "volatiles" like benzene and toluene, chemicals that can lead to respiratory irritation, permanent brain damage, memory loss, leukemia.
But fishermen are desperate for work, and BP knows it. This weekend, after being pressured in court, BP was forced to retract large portions of an agreement it forced cleanup volunteers to sign that would indemnify it against legal action if workers were injured.
BP's volunteer agreement also forbade workers from talking about the clean-up efforts without first getting approval from the company and demanded 30 days notice before anyone tried to bring legal action against the company. BP also tried to force volunteers to agree that if people were injured or boats or other equipment got damaged, the volunteers' own insurance, and not BP, would be responsible for covering all damages.
For Harden, the oil spill itself is an assault on communities of color that are still struggling to get on their feet after Hurricanes Katrina and Rita. "You've got folks, particularly poor people of color caught in all forms of red tape that are blocking their recovery," Harden said. "No one loses [developers'] applications, but for anyone who needs government assistance, they have to call 1-800 numbers, they don't get any support."
Harden said that several decades of channelization in the region and levy work had eroded the coastal region at a rapid pace--"Every 45 minutes, a football field disappears"--and left the region more vulnerable to hurricanes and other natural disasters. Meanwhile, historically Black communities were evacuated and shut down to make room for oil refineries.
And now they've lost their livelihoods, too. "This side of the interstate for all four states is seafood, in terms of the diet of most people and the work of most people," said Harden. According to Business Week, Louisiana has the largest seafood industry in the lower 48. Annual retail seafood sales are $1.8 billion. It's an industry that many immigrants, too, especially the Vietnamese American community, are dependent on.
Displaced and now out of work for the foreseeable future, communities of color are fighting an uphill battle.
Both Harden and Orr said that even though the oil spill points to the need for more regulation of offshore drilling, the disaster raised an even larger question. "Is this really worth the risk at all?" asked Orr. "Do we really need to be pushing the envelope in our exploration for a material that we know is not good for us in the first place?"
"Our communities should not be sacrificed for oil, gas, and petrochemical production," said Harden. "Would the need for BP's oil be so great if more was done than just paying lip service to the sustainable use of our natural resources and renewable energy?"
Photo: Getty Images/Joe Raedle