When I walked in the office last Thursday afternoon, little did I know I would be deploying to LaFitte, LA as part of the Rapid Response Team (RRT), a group of volunteers trained in talking with residents of an affected area that are ready should the unfortunate experience of an accident occur. The team left the office equipped with health surveys and flyers for our iWitness Pollution Map, ready to speak with communities who may be affected. Our first stop was a briefing with the Coast Guard.
Ten of us filed into a room along with about fifteen safety vest wearing Coast Guard officers, a man from the LDEQ, a National Weather Service weatherman, and reps from the companies involved in the accident. This marked the first time the Coast Guard and LABB worked together to respond to a major oil accident, and there was a bit of awkwardness in the room, given the mix of parties present. The Coast Guard was very welcoming and sought to establish a good working relationship with LABB, setting a precedent for future interactions.
Once in the bayou, our team dispersed and began knocking on doors, asking residents about their experience with the explosion, seeing if they experienced health concerns, inquiring about the effects the BP spill of 2010 had on them, and explaining how our pollution map works. Residents were very receptive and welcomed our efforts, and fortunately, most did not have any health symptoms, although some said the smoke had aggravated their respiratory problems. Talking about the iWitness Pollution Map was met with enthusiasm; residents were excited to have a powerful tool to voice their experiences. For four hours, I heard stories of family members who died on oil rig accidents, depreciated land value from oil residue in their soil, and struggles to receive settlements from BP. While conversing, some shrugged off the pipeline incident, being habituated to these industry accidents, but once I asked about BP, the floodgates of stories opened. Some became emotional as they spoke of their inability to grow their own food and loss of culture resulting from these industry accidents.
Talking with people into the evening was an eye-opening experience; having recently moved to New Orleans from Georgia, I was excited just to drive through unfamiliar territory of southern Louisiana and interact with people from a unique American sub-culture. Seeing the natural beauty of the pipeline disrupted by the burning pipeline under a column of smoke in the distance saddened me for not only ruining the aesthetic but symbolizing grief the oil industry has inflicted upon Louisiana. Hearing about tragedies like the pipeline crash or the BP Oil Spill on the news evoke empathetic feelings, but the true gravity of the situation can’t sink in until one personally sees the damage and connects with those affected. As an outsider I was taken aback by everything: the beauty of the area, the smoke, the economic loss, but many of these residents seemed unphased by yet another industry accident. All one can do now is strive to change industry norms to make burning pipelines unacceptable.