Ada McMahon is a freelance writer and volunteer for the Louisiana Bucket Brigade.
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.
Outreach teams from the Louisiana Bucket Brigade have a simple but effective approach: they visit coastal communities like Jean Lafitte in Jefferson Parish or Port Sulpher and Pointe a la Hache in Plaquemines Parish, where the teams talk to residents and community leaders about what they’re experiencing. The teams write up reports on what they learn, and add new data to the Oil Spill Crisis Map (http://www.oilspill.labucketbrigade.org/), which gives an overall picture of the region. They return about once a week to get an update, and submit new data to the map. The teams also encourage residents to become “citizen reporters” themselves by reporting what they experience directly to the map via text message or the web.
On our outreach visit to the town of Jean Lafittte, we talked to the manager of the local Piggly Wiggly grocery store, Michelle, who seems to know just about everyone in town; to Mayor Tim Kerner, who was frustrated with federal agencies thwarting the local plan to stop the oil by creating a barrier with rocks; and to out of work fishermen and retired barflies at Cocheira, a local marina and bar.
But what I was most struck by was the visit to Plaquemines Parish the following day, where we heard directly from residents that are getting sick from oil fumes. I’m not talking about BP clean-up workers who are directly handling the oil, but people who are being made sick by the air they breathe outside their homes every morning.
In and around Port Sulpher, we spoke to three people in one afternoon who are experiencing health problems they attribute to the oil. All of them say they smell oil frequently, especially in the morning. Cindy, who lives in Boothville, described it as a “rich, oily, gassy smell. It gets me very nauseated and sick.” On a scale of 1 to 10, with 10 being “unbearable,” Cindy rated the smell an 8.
She has been vomiting, feeling nauseous, and experiencing severe headaches. She also mentioned several friends who are sick, including one who is now on a respirator.
Cindy’s fiancé is due back any day now from Grand Isle, after nearly 3 weeks on a clean-up job for BP. When I asked her why she agreed to speak with us, she said:
“I want people to know what’s happening down here. And it needs to be resolved before anybody else gets sick. That’s my main concern…”
The Occupational Safety and Health Administration has been overseeing the safety of clean-up workers like Cindy’s fiancé, but what about residents who are getting sick just from breathing the air around their homes?
Many don’t have adequate health services in their communities to turn to. Cindy says the nearest health services are at least an hour away, in New Orleans, Belle Chasse, or Gretna.
Another man I met, who asked to remain anonymous, has recently been doing odd jobs that require driving down to Venice, the town at the end of Plaquemines that sticks furthest into the Gulf, after being laid off from his oystering job. He said he’s basically been getting by, but has fallen behind on his bills and doesn’t have a phone anymore. He is taking over-the-counter medicine for his new sinus infection and sore throat, because he doesn’t have health insurance and can’t afford a doctor.
For these coastal residents in Louisiana the impacts of the oil are already washing ashore, with no relief in sight.
Kenneth Ford is no stranger to health problems caused by the oil industry. Mr. Ford’s home is across the street from an Exxon Mobil refinery in Chalmette, just outside of New Orleans. For the 47 years he’s lived there, he’s seen neighbor after neighbor die from cancer. Suspecting that the refineries are responsible for the high cancer rates, but not trusting the oil company to honestly and accurately monitor itself, Mr. Ford and the St. Bernard Citizens for Environmental Quality have used buckets to gather their own data about the air quality in their neighborhood – and used the alarming evidence for law suits and to garner media attention.
On the same day I heard residents of Plaquemines Parish describe how they are getting sick, I joined about fifteen LABB volunteers at Mr. Ford’s home, to learn how to use the air monitoring buckets.
For 10 years, the Louisiana Bucket Brigade has used the buckets, the namesake of the organization, as a tool to empower neighbors of oil refineries like Mr. Ford. LABB is now beefing up the data it gathers for the Oil Spill Crisis Map, by outfitting outreach teams with buckets.
This week, the teams will begin gathering air samples where the oil stench is strong. Analysis of the samples will likely compliment the reports of the oil smell and health impacts, with an accurate gauge of the parts per billion of benzene and other cancer-causing toxins emitted by the crude oil.
Hopefully outreach teams can gather hard data that backs up what Plaquemines Parish residents already know – the crude oil gushing into the gulf is poisoning their air and making them sick.
Armed with the data, and the ongoing citizen reports from the crisis map, coastal residents have a better shot at getting officials and the media to pay attention to the air quality and health impacts of the oil on Gulf Coast communities – and to get much needed services and compensation.