New Iberia, Louisiana – Wilma Subra wears many hats: Community activist. Grandmother of six. MacArthur Genius. Wife of forty years. Perhaps most importantly she is a trained chemist. And when things go bad in southern Louisiana – or others states, for that matter; she recently testified in a dubious water case in my neighborhood in New York – she gets called to weigh in subjectively on what exactly is wrong with the air, ground or water.
Which means, in Louisiana, she stays very busy.
And when people as far from the oil spill as New Orleans started complaining about feeling sick and blaming the spill – headaches, irritated eyes, nose, throat and lungs, nauseous, dizzy – Wilma started comparing and collecting atmospheric data. What she’s finding is that the spill isn’t just putting the ocean and marine life at risk, but the very air that southern Louisianans breathe. For the rest of my dispatch from New Iberia, see www.takepart.com.
Grand Isle, Louisiana – A long thin two-lane highway connects central Louisiana with the Gulf. The channels that paralleling the hundred mile drive are filled with fishing boats parked in single file, shrimpers mostly. On my way to the road’s end I stop and visit with men polishing boats and repairing gear. News over the weekend from Terrebone Parish that a first fishermen had returned with oil-tainted shrimp had dampened an already dark mood.
But even before the oil spill these fishermen were growing disillusioned by their chosen profession. “Actually it’s almost not like I chose this life,” John “Winnie” Winsted tells me, sitting in the back of his shrimp boat thirty miles north of the big oil town of Port Fourchon. “I’ve been doing it since I was a teenager. Now, it’s in my blood.”
Pre-spill the fishermen had a handful of complaints: High fuel prices. A dead zone that grows in the Gulf each spring/summer thanks to fertilizers washed down from the north, forcing them to go further out to sea thus costing more to operate. Trade policies which they see as favoring foreign fishermen, allowing foreign companies to “dump” seafood on the U.S. market at below production costs, mostly from Thailand, Indonesia, Ecuador, China, Vietnam, Myanmar and India.
But fishing has never been an easy way to make a living, even without several million gallons of oil mucking up the fishery and a growing public perception that all fish from the Gulf are now polluted. Despite improved technology like sonar and GPS which make finding fish much easier, the markets just get tighter and tighter, and the fish fewer and fewer. For the rest of my dispatch, see takepart.com.
Breaux Bridge, Louisiana — I’ve been coming to the Gulf coast of Louisiana every few months since July 2008, making a film about the relationship between man and the water in a place where everywhere you look there is glimpse of a river, creek, bayou, basin, swamp, the Gulf or the Mississippi River. Coincidentally, in light of recent events, one of the first things we filmed upon arrival 22 months ago was an oil spill. At the time when an oil tanker t-boned a barge in the middle of the Mississippi River at midnight on July 28 it seemed catastrophic. Now I know that it was in part business as usual.
Zydeco breakfast, Cafe des Amis, Breaux Bridge
That 400,000-gallon spill, in the heart of New Orleans’ drinking water source, quickly coated both banks of the river for 80 miles, all the way to the Gulf. We filmed crews in white hazmat suits power-washing oil off the rocks in New Orleans from the tourist promenade lining the river. In an interview with the Department of Environmental Quality official in charge of the state’s waterways he admitted without hesitation that “this kind of thing happens often in Louisiana, given the massive oil and gas industry that controls things here.”
In the months since we have traveled with, interviewed and filmed a half-dozen of Louisiana’s crème-de-la-crème of environmental activists and environmental ills. My original intent was to try and understand and explain the Dead Zone that grows off the mouth of the Mississippi every summer thanks to fertilizers washed down it from 31 northern states. But one interesting character led to another, one mess to another, and we just kept coming back. For the rest of my dispatch from Breaux Bridge, see www.takepart.com ….
Barataria, Louisiana – It is the perfect blue-sky, humidity-less spring day in bayou country that makes you feel like everything should be all right in the world.
The intercoastal waterway leading to the Gulf of Mexico is calm, the canals that host fishing boats behind each neat suburban home reflect the midday sun and a cool breeze washes away extraneous sounds and smells.
But despite the bucolic day fisherman Mike Roberts is angry. “Osama bin Laden couldn’t have done a better job of destroying a part of the American economy. This oil spill? It’s like the ultimate act of terrorism. And these guys …” – BP and Transocean executives, and the federal agency that was supposed to police them but appears to have been very cozy with the oil industry (Mineral Management Service) – “should be treated like terrorists.”
As we talk, a leftover shrimp lasagna heating in the oven, we watch soundless oil company heads testifying before Congress on headline news. Mike, and his wife Tracy Kuhns, glimpse at the television as we talk. Their house, a pair of fishing boats tied up on the canal just feet from the backdoor, is a hub this morning for neighbors, friends and relatives looking for information. When this fishing community went to bed last night they thought they were going to be able to shrimp today in the fresh waters of the bayou. But they woke to learn that all fishing along the coast had been shut down. For my full report see takepart.com.
We first went to Southern Louisiana with cameras one year ago; we’ve been back a couple times since and are just wrapping up the editing of a beautiful, provocative film – “SoLa, Louisiana Water Stories” – about man’s relationship with water in a part of the world where everywhere you look you’re surrounded by bayou, swamp or wetlands, the Mississippi River or Gulf of Mexico.
The region is home to the most unique and vital culture in America and every Cajun from Grand Isle to Breaux Bridge, has a story – or two, three or more – about … water.
Theirs are stories with a lot of passion and heart but also a fair amount of dismay. SoLa’s waterways are home to some serious environmental problems, including oil and gas spills, petrochemical waste that has filtered into the air and water, fertilizer run-off from its neighbors and coastal erosion that is disappearing twenty-five square miles of Southern Louisiana each year.
Tomorrow morning (August 27) between 8 and 9 a.m. EST ABC’s “Good Morning America” and Sam Champion are excerpting a piece from our film, taking their own look at one of the most serious and mysterious of SoLa’s problems, a growing Dead Zone in the Gulf of Mexico.