Ada McMahon is a freelance writer and volunteer for the Louisiana Bucket Brigade.
I came down to the Gulf Coast about two weeks ago, drawn by the notion that by being here, talking to people, and supporting community-based responses to the oil disaster, I would learn a whole lot more that what I’d get on CNN, and maybe make myself useful at the same time.
One of the things I’ve learned so far is that, even here, coastal residents are having trouble getting timely and accurate information about the disaster. Several of the people I’ve spoken to, who have oil right off their shores, get their information from the same sources my friends in California do: the evening news and the biggest know-it-all at the local bar.
There seem to be a whole slew of things standing in the way of transparency and information sharing:
Workers hired by BP for clean-up jobs must sign confidentiality agreements – meaning those with the most direct knowledge about the oil cannot openly talk about it. Officials that show up at community meetings seem to toe the company line rather than directly addressing concerns and questions. Just this weekend the Coast Guard further restricted access to clean-up operations – now people within 65 feet of boom and oil response vessels can be slapped with a $40,000 fine or a felony charge. Presented as a safety measure, this will keep media and citizens further away from being able to see and report on clean-up efforts. [Source: Times-Picayune http://www.nola.com/news/gulf-oil-spill/index.ssf/2010/07/media_boaters_could_face_crimi.html]
Most of these roadblocks seem to boil down to two things:
One, the people with the most data and intelligence about the disaster and the containment efforts, BP and various state and federal agencies, have a vested interested in not sharing that information openly. Instead, their public relations efforts and media teams are working on making the disaster seem like just a “spill” that is completely under their control.
And two, the people with the most intimate knowledge of Gulf Coast communities, of local ecology and culture, of the health impacts they are experiencing, and with decades of experience with the oil industry and with the government’s inadequate responses to disasters, namely community leaders and residents, do not have a significant seat at the decision-making table.
In this climate, it is critical for an independent source to collect and share information, a source whose bottom line is the health and empowerment of impacted communities, not its public image, profits, or votes in the midterm elections. And it is essential that this source draw from the knowledge and perspectives of community members and Gulf Coast residents.
Through their mapping and outreach work, the Louisiana Bucket Brigade (LABB) is striving to be that source of information for the Louisiana Gulf Coast. In response to the oil disaster, LABB has been independently tracking the impacts of oil spill – particular health impacts, economic impacts, and the location of oil, with the help and direct input of residents from the most affected communities.
Last week I had the opportunity to join two Louisiana Bucket Brigade outreach teams in Lafitte and Plaquemines Parish, where I learned about their outreach method, and some surprising impacts the oil is having on local residents.
Additional photos by Ada McMahon can be found here: