Guest blog post by Elissa Loughman, Patagonia Volunteer, Port Sulphur August 1-7, 2010
After three full days of knocking on doors and asking Plaquemines Parish residents to participate in a survey for us, 10 Patagonia employees, 2 Louisiana Bucket Brigade staff and a few other LABB volunteers walked into a town hall meeting in Buras, Louisiana. The point of the town hall meeting was to give the community an opportunity to ask questions and provide ideas on how the nation should rebuild the gulf.
Ray Mabus, the Secretary of the Navy, ran the meeting and was there to respond to the residents questions and comments. President Obama has asked him to develop a long-term Gulf Coast Restoration Plan. The intention is for the plan to be designed by states, local communities, tribes, fishermen, businesses, conservationists and other Gulf residents.
Several long time residents quickly stepped up to the mics and gave some amazing insight into how the Gulf naturally flows and provided suggestions on how to structure the restoration efforts. Expectedly though, the discussion at the meeting quickly transitioned from residents providing guidance to Mabus on how to restore the gulf, to very specific questions about the oil spill, the use of the dispersant, and what was being done to clean up the damage.
On either side of the meeting hall were representatives from various agencies brought to the meeting to assist Mabus in answering the more technical questions. BP, IRS, EPA, NOAA, Army Corps of Engineers and the Department of Health and Human Services were present.
Residents wanted to know how the oil was going to be cleaned up? If the ocean, drinking water, and air were being tested for hazardous substances? And if they were being tested, they demanded to see the test results. They wanted to know what dispersant is, what it does to the oil and how it is affecting the fish? And they wanted to know if they started fishing again, commercially or recreationally, would the fish be safe to eat?
Between Mabus and the representatives, there were some answers, but mostly Mabus reiterated that he was at the meeting to talk to the residents about a restoration plan for the gulf. He did not have any answers about how the Gulf would be cleaned up or how the residents of the parish would be compensated for their losses. Understandably, the residents wanted more information about the spill and the affects of the oil and the dispersant on their Gulf and they could not get past the present situation they are facing.
Five years ago this parish was wiped out by Katrina, but the week after Katrina, the residents were able to go back to fishing. This time, their Gulf has been contaminated and they don’t know to what degree and how it is going to be fixed. This area of Louisiana relies on commercial fishing as their main source of income, providing 1/3 of the seafood for our nation. They also rely on fishing as a main source of food and it is the primary recreation in the area. In other words, fishing is everything to the people that live in Plaquemines. It is their livelihood and their culture.
Since the oil spill, the residents have not been able to fish, shrimp, crab, harvest oysters, etc. Although this area of the gulf was reopened to recreational fishing Thursday July 22nd, the residents question if the sea life that has survived the spill is safe to sell and to consume and are therefore hesitant to resume fishing. I do not blame them. From what I understand, NOAA has not made the data that they have collected to monitor the contaminants in the area publically available. The FDA has made public statements supporting reopening fishing in certain parts of the Gulf, including Louisiana. The FDA has provided actual data from 39 samples, all taken on July 29th in Louisiana waters showing that “fish” (they failed to get specific as to what type of marine life they had tested), had low enough contaminant levels to not be considered volatile. I do appreciate the transparency of providing actual data. But I am glad that the local fisherman in Plaquemines Parish, whose livelihood and family health is dependant upon their ability to provide good, fresh, safe fish that isn’t going to make anyone sick, are taking the time to ask these authoritative organizations once again if they are sure the fish is safe to eat.
Despite the lack of answers provided, the meeting was fascinating. It was amazing to hear how much the locals know about the land, the water and the fishing in the gulf and how educated they are becoming on the spill. After observing the meeting it was apparent that a new group of environmentalists have emerged from this disaster; the Fishermen. They want the Gulf cleaned up and they want to make sure the marine life is healthy. Although BP representatives interviewed on the news are saying “we are almost done with the clean up down here”, these fishermen know that that is not the case. They have seen the oil in their waters and know that there is still a lot of work that needs to be done. Once all the news crews are gone and the world has turned its attention to another crisis, I have a feeling that the fishermen will be the ones that continue to ask questions and demand answers and actions until the gulf starts to resemble what it once was.