The Delta Grassroots Caucus (DGC) is a broad coalition of grassroots leaders in the eight-state Delta region. DGC is also a founding partner of the Economic Equality Caucus,
which advocates for economic equality across the USA.

Lee Powell's Report from the Louisiana Coast on the Oil Disaster

Posted on June 15, 2010 at 07:41 PM

GRAND ISLE, LOUISIANA: James Carville was correct when he wrote in the New Orleans Times Picayune on June 13 that the oil spill in the Gulf is a national emergency, not just a regional problem. A number of the Delta Grassroots Caucus are down here on the Louisiana coast gathering information, brainstorming and working on policies to help in fighting the economic, health and environmental consequences of the worst environmental catastrophe in US history. This is the first of several reports in which we will try to disseminate information about the key issues regarding the oil spill.

First, let’s make clear why this is an emergency that affects everybody in the entire Greater Mississippi Delta Region. The Gulf region produces 30 percent of America’s entire domestic seafood supply, as well as more than 30 percent of our country’s domestic oil and natural gas. The oil companies dredged canals in the marshland. Salt-water invasion killed the marshes that provide jobs for tens of thousands of fishermen. Huge engineering projects across huge stretches of the country made the region more vulnerable, and the coast here loses a football field of land every 38 minutes, for a total loss the size of the state of Delaware since World War II.

The fishing jobs are lost with the cessation of fishing in most of the key areas of the Gulf, and the cessation of offshore drilling wiped out the other main source of jobs. Prices of gas and food will go up all over the country.

The wetlands are the first line of defense against hurricanes and storm surges, and metereologists are forecasting an unusually bad storm season this year. In addition to the Deepwater Horizon blow-out, Scientists with the Naval Research Laboratory at the Stennis Space Center say waves up to 91 feet and strong underwater currents generated by hurricanes can wreak havoc with the more than 31,000 miles of pipelines connecting oil wells in the Gulf to the Coast. With the oil leak continuing and drilling additional wells to stop it expected to take at least until August, this situation will inevitably be much worse by August and September.

President Obama’s speech was an improvement on his earlier responses to the disaster, especially in the stress on making BP compensate the victims through an escrow account administered by a third party, the selection of former Mississippi Governor Ray Mabus to develop the Gulf recovery plan, the correct assessment of BP’s assessment, and the clean energy development. The latter could use more specifics, however, and Obama still has a long way to go to get a more favorable assessment on his response to the disaster down here.

Let us remember that this area has still a long way to go in long-term rebuilding after Hurricane Katrina. Rev. Dwight Webster, the eloquent orator and pastor of the predominantly African American Christian Unity Baptist Church in New Orleans had his home flooded after Katrina. I had the honor of helping clean up his house after Katrina about five years ago, and he is just now, in 2010, moving back into his home.

Another high-level nonprofit executive said she had told her family that they had packed up and left as Katrina approached and then come back to re-settle in New Orleans. She said in some ways the long-term environmental, health and economic impact of the oil disaster may be even worse, so she has informed her family that “If we leave this time we’re not coming back.” Of course, many others with less resources have never come back after Katrina.

As Caucus director, I am down here to practice what I preach about working for all areas of the Greater Delta Region, view the situation firsthand, send out accurate information and try to develop solutions to the problems of the oil spill. Since the health impact is one of the most obvious problems, we are working on setting up a series of the grassroots-developed, community health houses that started out in Mississippi and are based on guidelines developed by the World Health Organization. For the most directly affected areas, grassroots leaders here frequently say that the destruction of the oil and fishing jobs destroys not just the local economy but a way of life and their distinctive culture.

Last week the New Orleans Times Picayune lead headline, cast in letters you would normally expect only about a war, said “Spill May Be the Double the Size.” Yet today the estimates took yet another turn for the worse: BP revealed an oil-collection strategy that it claims to capture up to 53,000 barrels of oil per day by the end of June and up to 80,000 barrels by mid-July. While increasing the oil capture capacity is certainly a positive, both these amounts substantially escalated the previously increased estimates, which were much higher than what BP originally said, about the amount of oil spewing from the blown-out Maconda well in the Gulf. The idea that there will still be such a massive amount to try to capture by mid-July–even on BP’s usually optimistic estimates–was also disturbing.

It will not surprise anybody to learn of the deep hostility toward BP here, based on reports showing that they repeatedly emphasized cutting costs and saving time while neglecting safety in the construction of the Deep Water Horizon, their misleading estimates that initially downplayed the extent of the leak but now acknowledge that it is at least four to five times larger than the Exxon Valdez and probably worse than that, their policies of avoiding or delaying paying claims, not paying workmen appropriately, and being ineffective in oil leak cleanup thus far.

One fishermen I talked to in Venice, Louisiana on the coast said BP exacted “slave labor” because almost the only work around here is working for them, “so you have to work for them or starve, but they don’t pay me as much as I would have made in a normal year.” He said the oil had caused extensive damage to his boat, which was currently in the shop and would leave him with a big repair bill. Then he acknowledged he was very bitter, as almost any of us would be in his place, and said “The big companies always shaft the little guy and they’re sure doing it to us.”

Those sentiments are common, but I also know of some of our friends working in nonprofits that while we should hold BP to compensating all the victims and making the region whole, we should also point out to them that if they will greatly improve their clean-up efforts, compensation for victims and rebuilding efforts, they will get some credit for that in contrast to the current views of outrage. There are currently some discussions under way about asking BP to not just do the minimum that they are forced to do but also fund some long-term environmental and health projects. It remains to be seen whether they will have the common sense to do that.

The Obama administration and the federal government have also come in for their share of serious criticism, and not just from Republicans, as James Carville’s sharp criticisms of the administration have demonstrated. There was a slight improvement in the assessment of Obama in light of his decision that there must be an independently administered escrow account to compensate victims of the oil disaster, as well as the Coast Guard’s recent criticisms of BP’s clean-up plans, which Coast Guard Commander Thad Allen blasted as “too slow and too little.” The pace has picked up a little latey but is still too slow.

President Obama gave a good speech, but beyond that, he needs to back up the speech with action. We all remember that President George W. Bush gave a great speech in New Orleans shortly after Katrina, but never backed it up with action. This is Obama’s opportunity to change the negative marks he has received thus far regarding the spill.

Obama’s decision on BP compensation of victims and the sharp recent Coast Guard criticism were seen as positive steps away from what many people here thought was a tendency to let BP have too large a role in the initial period after the explosion and leak.

A couple of us took a long boat cruise in the Gulf of Mexico yesterday below Grand Isle with a local fisherman, who was one of the few not working for BP. We preferred to go with a local person rather than BP, which initially discouraged us from going on to the Gulf at all and prefers to be in control of access to information about the situation, although nonprofits and the media and other concerned parties are now working to prevent those efforts and increase the flow of accurate information.

The oil sheen was evident even on the water close to shore. Shortly upon leaving the dock, the fisherman pointed to a stretch of shore where oil was clearly gathering. There was a gap in the boom, so the oil naturally flowed through the gap. I asked “Why would they put the boom out there with a big gap in the middle where the oil can flow through?” He just threw up his hands in frustration.

One of the issues where the federal response was questionable concerns the delay in building the sand barriers that most experts believed are much more effective at stopping the oil than booms. The expense involved was certainly part of the problem. However, in addition, one nonprofit executive based in New Orleans complained that for weeks, the Coast Guard was reluctant to act because the “sand barriers might cause ecological problems.” She thought, well, we have a choice between some relatively minor potential damage created by the sand barriers, versus the imperative of doing something to stop the worst invasion of oil in US history–“it ought to be a no-brainer but they delayed for weeks before starting it.”

I went to the place below Grand Isle where the sand barriers are being created on Monday, June 14, and to be fair, the area was dotted with activity. The sand barrier creation process itself was an impressive technological feat: they dredged massive amounts of sand, and at two locations near the shore there were what looked like massive mud fountains–partly water and partly mud–gushing up from the shore. Bulldozers that could operate in a foot or so of water then plowed the sand right at the shoreline. There is evidence that the tougher approach of the federal government is getting BP to improve its work.

As we moved across the Gulf, boats who were cleaning up the oil were hard at work all over the place. One group of people we have to give a lot of credit to are the clean-up workers, who have to toil out there in the hot sun and humidity and breathe the nasty fumes. The only exceptions to what looked like a beehive of activity were the oil rigs, now idle due to the drilling moratorium imposed by the Obama administration. Obama contends that this is an essential precautionary measure to prevent a second disaster erupting before we have contained the first, but needless to say it is exceedingly unpopular in an area where so many people depend on oil for their livelihood.

As we passed closer to shore, we could see workers cleaning up the beaches. They work 15 minutes and then rest 45 minutes and let others spell them. What awful work on the hot beach and being right on top of the oil.

It is common for people who live here to complain of headaches, sore throats, dizziness, and feeling tired. A couple of employees at a restaurant right on the beach in Grand Isle said they had been sick. One said she had been sick for four days. The wife of a hotel owner was headed toward the doctor because she felt so bad. I’ve been here the better part of a week and I have a sore throat, headaches and feel quite worn out at night when I’m trying unsuccessfully to sleep.

The restaurant workers who said they were feeling the health impact from the oil acknowledged with a wry sense of humor that some of the BP people they knew wondered whether it was stress, the heat and humididy, or food poisoning not related to the oil spill. The reports of these symptoms are widespread, and one cafe worker joked that “Yeah, right, we suddenly had an epidemic of food poisoning and heat stroke right after the oil spill hit.”

Since I’m a traveler, the heat, humidity and food poisoning explanations might be possible. It is not a credible explanation for people who live here and are accustomed to dealing with these conditions.

There will be a need to track and document the health impact of the oil spill, clearly. James Miller of the Oxford International Development Group makes a convincing case that one of the best ways to engage in preventive care and deal with the long-term health care impact of the oil spill would be to establish a system of Community Health Houses along the Gulf. We have been advocating for this in any event, but the case is most compelling at the moment for the Gulf. Both the direct environmental and chemical effects of the oil and the noxious dispersants used to combat its spread are health hazards, but the economic impact of low income and/or uninsured people will also be devastating. We are holding meetings down here with James Miller and others and will have to keep monitoring and coming up with solutions for the health issues, and we will deal with that in detail in later messages.

We went out to Queen’s Bliss island, a scenic place covered with pelicans, sea gulls and all kinds of sea birds. Again, the fisherman pointed out that the booms are supposed to be straight and firm, but they were tangled up in many places. The shore was blackened in many places with oil, and many of the pelicans were drenched with oil.

As we slow down, in certain stretches ugly globs of oil or long blotches of it slide past the boat. We pass some dead fish, a dead snake, and then we saw a school of majestic dolphins, coming out of the water where at first they look like sharks. There will still dolphin all over the place. Sad to think what swimming in that muck and breathing the air with the noxious fumes will do to our mammals the dolphins, sadder still to think about the fish who have to actually breathe the stuff and it gets into their gills.

People who work in stores, cafes and hotels are depressed but they acknowledge that the influx of clean-up workers, Coast Guard and other people did create a trickle of a positive development, except that when the clean-up is over those clean-up people will be gone, and the fishermen and oil workers and those connnected to them economically will not be.

In New Orleans, up to now the impact is much less but still negative. Much of the tourist trade in New Orleans seems to be fairly good, although some tourists may have stayed away due to what is probably an inaccurate view that New Orleans has already been affected by the oil spill. While there are people who claim they can smell the oil spill in New Orleans at certain times when the wind blows in a certain direction, I sure could not smell anything and the first few days I was here when I was only in New Orleans, I felt fine.

That is NOT to say that everything is fine and dandy in the Big Easy. Several days ago the P&J oyster shucking operation, which has been working in New Orleans for over 100 years, shut down operations. The oyster shuckers lost their jobs, and a New Orleans icon was gone.

Seafood purchases at the restaurants will inevitably go way down, although many people here rightly point out that the historic sights, blues and jazz, quaint and picturesque ambience of New Orleans will attract many tourists even if they can’t eat oysters on the half shell, shrimp, and other seafood.

The Gulf of Mexico is enormous, of course, and for those who have the resources to go way out, there are still safe fishing areas far away. One fisherman in Grand Isle said you have to go approximately 130 miles away to get to an area where the fish are safe to eat. Grand Isle is on a peninsula that is a two and a half hour drive below New Orleans.

Recently I ate at Galatoire’s, not just one of the finest restaurants in New Orleans but in the country and the world. I asked where the grouper was caught that was on the menu, and the waiter assured me that it was from an area far enough out in the Gulf that it was safe. I ate it, it was great and I had no ill effects. However, let me warn you that Galatoire’s is unique–they are wealthy enough to have the resources to go way out in the Gulf or import seafood from far away. Also, my late father, James O. Powell, editorial editor of the Arkansas Gazette for many years and a lover of New Orleans, used to eat at Galatoire’s for many years since I was a kid, so there was a decades-long sense of trust there.

At other restaurants on the Gulf I order grilled chicken.

Even for Galatoire’s, their executive chef Brian Landry is looking at other options as the oyster supply dwindles. A new approach is to cook more bland items in a new way–Landry was quoted on the front page of the Times Picayune as saying that he was pushing a new item on the menu–“CHICKEN LIVERS EN BROCHETTE.”

It is always important to remember that the New Orleans of the French Quarter and Galatoire’s has nothing to do with the New Orleans of the Ninth Ward and the lower-income neighborhoods. The French Quarter was humming about as usual the last couple of times I was there recently, but that means nothing for the people in New Orleans who are really hurting.

Venice is about 78 miles below New Orleans, and there are still extensive marshes below Venice before you reach the Gulf. The boats at the marina there go down the end of the Mississippi River to enter the Gulf. Grand Isle is at the end of another peninsula in a southern and southwestern direction from New Orleans. Many people underestimate the extent of the territory that is below New Orleans. This is a huge area that is affected, not to mention the national economic implications and the threat that storms will worsen the entire catastrophe.

We’ll follow up with more information later. Lee Powell, executive director, MDGC (202) 360-6347