When, on August 4th, President Obama’s chief environmental adviser Carol Browner put the White House stamp of approval on stats claiming “74 percent of the oil spilled into the Gulf” had already been cleaned up, captured, burned, dispersed, evaporated, degraded or dissolved in the water … most of the people I know living along the coastline of Louisiana rolled their collective eyes.
Mike Roberts, a shrimper who lives on Barataria Bay – the hard-hit marshlands leading to the Gulf – said, “they obviously haven’t been to my backyard recently, which is still caked with oil.”
His wife Tracy Kuhns, Louisiana Bayoukeeper and director of the local family fishermen’s association, has been outspoken about BP and the government’s math since the gushing began. “They haven’t gotten it right from the very beginning when they told us only a few hundred rather than a few thousand barrels were leaking a day … why should we trust them now?”
On the other side of the estuary, P.J. Hahn, a Republican politician whose job it is to look after the future of the coastline of Plaquemines Parish and has been out on the water virtually every day since the gusher first began, said of the federal government numbers “they sound just too good to be true.”
One thing those “too good to be true” stats helped produce were some very optimistic news reports. “Sunshine is evaporating the oil, and bacteria are rapidly digesting it,” reported Bloomberg Businessweek.
“In a year or two we can forget this ever happened,” Roger Sassen, an adjunct professor of geology and geophysics at Texas A&M, told Bloomberg. “The fact that the Mississippi is the drainage ditch for the fertilizers and nasty agricultural chemicals of the entire central U.S. is much worse than this transient spill.”
(For the rest of my dispatch go to takepart.com)
Tracy Kuhns never imagined a future as an environmental activist. A native of Louisiana, she was living and going to college in Texas – already a young mother – when she discovered the reason the neighborhood kids, and herself, were getting rashes and constantly sick was because they were living next door to a chemical plant’s waste pit. Six years after she began fighting the area was declared a Superfund site, the houses in her neighborhood were razed, and she moved back to Louisiana.
Once back home in bayou country, married to a fisherman, she found it impossible to look the other way when she saws signs of trouble in her new backyard. When her fishermen neighbors started bringing back stories from the nearby fishing grounds of pollution left behind by oil and gas companies who’d come in, exploited and left – leaving spills, pipelines and infrastructure behind, fouling the estuaries – she had to get involved. Joined by her husband Mike Roberts today they are the official Louisiana Bayoukeepers and she also works with the local Fisherman’s Association in Barataria, counseling on everything from health insurance to, now, recovering from the loss of income due to the oil spill.
The day I find her at home, Mike’s fishing boat docked on the canal behind the house, sun glistening off the waterway that leads towards the Gulf (30 miles away) would have been the opening day of brown shrimp season.
“We’re used to spills around here, but usually they’re small and you won’t be able to fish in that area for a couple years. This is something totally different. This is something they (the oil company) can’t control and it’s just heartbreaking and infuriating.
For the rest of my conversation with Tracy, plus video, go to takepart.com.
We are in the process of finishing a big, beautiful, provocative film about Southern Louisiana, focused on the relationship between man and the sea … so obviously when the Deepwater Horizon oil rig exploded, inflamed, sank and now continues to pump oil into the Gulf of Mexico we are watching with a vested interest. (In our film – Sola, Louisiana Water Stories – current Governor Bobby Jindal is on camera telling an interviewer that one of the “beauties” of Louisiana is that are no oil spills ….)
One of the conservation activists we profile in the film, Tracy Kuhns, is the Louisiana Bayoukeeper – affiliated with the international Waterkeeper Alliance – as well as running the Fishing Community Family Support Center. Her husband, Michael Roberts, is a fisherman and they live on Bayou Barataria where fishing is down for multiple reasons, one being the waste left behind by oil and gas explorations and takings going back many decades.
A shrimper on his way home at day's end, up Bayou Lafourche. Photo: Fiona Stewart
I asked her for her take on the still-growing oil spill in the Gulf, now spreading through Louisiana’s fertile fishing grounds (40 percent of the US.’s seafood comes from the Gulf of Mexico):
Tracy Kuhns: “As a resident of one of Louisiana’s many coastal fishing communities, I am very worried and saddened, right now, about the massive, on going, oil spill in the Gulf of Mexico. The media, government agencies and naturally, the environmental community seem so wrapped up with the oil they can see on the surface, it’s as if, that is all there is to the spill. While dealing with what is seen on the surface if urgent and extremely important to minimizing damage to our estuaries, our fishermen know from experience, with inland and other offshore oil spills, that what is on the surface is nothing compared to what will cover the water bottom and can not be seen. They know that after everyone proclaims the clean up to be complete and the fishermen go back fishing, their nets will come up covered in oil tar and that they will not be able to fish, in the area of the spill, for years to come. A complete clean up never happens, so this oil spill is bound to have long term impacts on the Gulf of Mexico and Inland fisheries for years to come, (Approx. 90% of Gulf Marine Species spend some portion of their life cycle in our estuaries). What will it take for us to learn that oil and gas are not worth the long term costs to the environment, communities and the people of the Gulf Coast? Why do we accept coastal destruction and erosion, oilfield debris, oil and gas explosions, spills and pollution as a necessary trade for jobs? Why are we willing to trade sustainable local seafood, tourism and recreational jobs for destructive, polluting ones? When will our legislators begin to move towards bringing us jobs from clean energy development (solar, etc), rather then hanging on to the past and continuing to support social and environmental destruction in the name of the economy? Jobs that promote sustainable, local small businesses and communities rather then pushing forward with industrialization of seafood production, which will cause further environmental destruction, fish population decline, and the collapse of local coastal community economies. Have we not learned anything from the industrialization of our farming communities and the resulting environmental and social destruction? Dead Zone in the Gulf and the loss of family farms and communities. Jobs where we produce and build what we need, locally, rather then importing it from elsewhere. When will those, who claim to serve the people, stand up for us, our communities and our natural resources, rather then corporate interests and environmental and social devastation?”
Good questions. Any comments?
The Times-Picayune in New Orleans reports that some of our friends in Louisiana were part of hearings recently in New Orleans held to vet plans for a national ocean policy, which would benefit the Gulf of Mexico region more than anywhere in the U.S. Chris Kirkham reports: “Several high-level Obama administration officials heard more than three hours worth of testimony from environmental groups, fishing organizations, scientists and the oil and gas industry about development of a national policy aimed at protecting the oceans and streamlining government management.
Comments for the national ocean policy task force reflected the wide-ranging pressures on the Gulf of Mexico’s resources: oil and gas pipelines and drilling activity; pollution from the Mississippi River creating a vast “dead zone” in the Gulf; overfishing that puts some species at risk; and the large-scale collapse of Louisiana’s coastal wetlands, which provide a nursery for Gulf seafood and serve as the infrastructure for ports and energy production.
“Over the past 20 years or so, we have watched as the dead zone has grown, and no funding has come down to do anything about it. We have watched as our coast has disappeared,” said Tracy Kuhns, who lives in the Lafitte area and runs Louisiana Bayoukeeper, a coastal advocacy group. “It’s not just a wetlands, it’s not just a swamp out there. People live there. When we lose all that we lose our culture, and our livelihoods.”
Obama has asked the ocean policy task force to draft an ocean policy plan by Dec. 9. Monday’s meeting in New Orleans was one of six the group is holding across the United States. The specifics they will address in their plan are unclear at this point. An interim report from the task force issued last month mentions pollution from rivers and the need to better integrate the way federal agencies manage ocean resources.
“Right now it’s pretty obvious the oceans are becoming increasingly crowded places, and we’re seeing more and more conflicts across that space,” said Jane Lubchenco, the administrator of the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration who is on the ocean policy task force, as well as a new federal inter-agency working group to address Louisiana’s coastal land loss. “That will inevitably require doing things differently, but what that is we don’t really know.”
Although Monday’s meeting was tailored to ocean policy, the bulk of the comments focused on coastal collapse in Louisiana.
“The nation cannot continue to watch Louisiana disappear. Thinking big and thinking bold is urgent,” said Robert Twilley, associate vice chancellor for research at Louisiana State University and a professor of oceanography and coastal sciences. “Supporting aggressive actions that are not paralyzed by conflicting federal policy should be of the highest priority.”
Dealing with coastal restoration should not be viewed as an either-or decision by policymakers in Washington, said Denise Reed, a coastal researcher at the University of New Orleans.
“It’s not about a choice between navigation and ecosystem restoration, it’s about interdependence. We want to do navigation on this river and we want to do oil and gas, ” she said. “Louisiana is undoubtedly in a crisis, and we don’t need short-term fixes, we need deliberative thinking about what the next century holds.”
Many recreational and for-hire fishing groups cautioned they should be included upfront in any plans the federal government has for ocean conservation.
“There’s a lot of people who make their living on the water here, ” said Gary Williams, a charter boat captain in Mississippi. “Whatever we do, we need to make sure that we can continue to do so.”
Jim Grant, a representative with oil company BP America, said any changes should consider effects on the Gulf’s energy economy.
“We caution the task force to carefully weigh policies that may set up exclusionary zones, disrupt the (federal government’s) leasing program or disrupt opportunities for economic growth.”
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Chris Kirkham can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org or 504.826.3786.