Oil in the bathtub

Guest blog post by Maggie Robinson, Patagonia Volunter, Port Sulphur, August 1-7, 2010

Though I’m from the south and am familiar with Southern Hospitality I am still amazed by the polite and welcoming experiences I had surveying local residents of Plaquemines Parish, LA about the impact the Gulf of Mexico Oil Spill has had on their lives, health and community.  It can be intimidating walking into a new community and know that you are going to walk up to their houses, knock on their doors and ask them personal questions regarding their health, jobs, income, and community. Most people I know would not even begin to be comfortable answering these questions from a stranger much less inviting them inside their home, out of the sweltering Louisiana summer sauna heat, to do so.

It then saddens me to realize that it is this wonderful and welcoming community that is suffering from the oil spill in the Gulf of Mexico. Thank goodness the Louisiana Bucket Brigade is surveying the community to document the effects of the oil spill on this community and others across Louisiana to collect evidence and advocate on their behalf because as far as I can tell no one else is- not the government, not environmental testing agencies, not BP, and not the media. The local residents are the people who are being affected, they have lost their jobs, their livelihood, a major portion of their culture and now they & the fish they live off of are being poisoned by the oil, vapors, and dispersant.

While in Plaquemines Parish we walked through the neighborhoods, knocking on doors, and were welcomed into homes to learn about the impact the spill has had on their lives. We spoke to real people and heard firsthand how they were being affected. What we thought would be a 5-15 minute survey often turned into a 30 minute to an hour long discussion of their lives and how they’ve changed.

We heard that many people are experiencing an increase in symptoms such as coughing, difficulty breathing, asthma, itching and burning eyes, headaches, skin rashes and nausea.  We learned from a recently laid off oil response worker that on the day the dispersant was sprayed that workers on a platform a few miles away became ill and had to go to the hospital. He also recounted how one of his friends, a commercial fisherman out of work from the spill, was told by his doctor that he could not work for the oil response due to the toxic vapors and chemicals used since he had a pre-existing  condition. We attended a Town Meeting in Buras, LA and learned of a mother whose daughter was experiencing a sever skin rash. Out of concern she removed her daughter from her home and family and moved her 200 miles inland. Once away from the exposed area her rashes disappeared. I spoke with a woman who originally believed she was not affected by the oil spill but then acknowledged that after the spill she had a migraine for four straight days until she threw-up. She then paused, looked up, and said she has never had a headache in her life before this. Most people we talked to recall a burnt oil odor in the weeks following the spill and one young man explained that since then his uncle’s asthma has flared up and he is now on a strict regimen of antibiotics and other medications.  One team interviewed a family who said that when turning on the water for a bath, oil rather than clean water ran from the faucet.  When they reported this to their local authority they were told to pour bleach down the drain.

Who is testing the water they drink, the fish they eat and the air they breathe? How can the vapors from the oil, especially when being burnt, and the millions of gallons of sprayed chemical dispersant not be affecting these local communities bordering the gulf?

These residents, who have for generations, created a culture and livelihood from fishing can no longer do so. This crisis is not like Katrina where the residents knew what to do afterwards- come home, clean up, and get to work. At least then they could still fish; they could still live. Now they can’t fish and since no one is testing the safety of the fish, water, and air they don’t know when, if ever, they will be able to fish again. Nor do they know the impact the chemicals and oil are having on them and their food sources.  Fishing, the main and only source of income for most of the people we spoke with, is not just a source of income. It is a way for families to remember family tradition and to pass it on through generations. Fishing is an integral part of their culture and now, along with their income, a major part of their culture has been taken from them.

Some were initially able to find work with the oil response but since Tropical Storm Bonnie we learned that many, close to a 25% of the response workers, were laid off. Now they, along with their fishing neighbors, have to file claims with BP to sustain their income. Normally this would be the peak season for fishing in which many fishermen make their yearly income in the span of a few hard worked months. Now to file a claim they need to come up with tax and business documents for the past 3 or so years for a business that is often done on a cash and barter system. We spoke to many residents who were receiving their $5,000 a month claim from BP for the first month, then received one check for $1,000 and have not received any since then.

From what we heard through our surveys with local residents it is likely this community is being poisoned, their work has been stripped of them, and their culture drastically changed. When has the media spoken on their behalf? When is it time to question what and whom the oil spill is affecting now? When is it time to test the water the local community drinks, the air they breathe, and the food they eat? When is it enough for the media and environmental testing agencies, such as the EPA, to acknowledge the impact this spill is having on the local community? Obviously not 4.9 million gallons of crude oil and more than 1.8 million gallons of chemical dispersant dumped into in their water and air supply.

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