Home On the oil-blackened shores of the Gulf

On the oil-blackened shores of the Gulf

by admin September 14, 2010

NEW ORLEANS, L.A. (CUP) 8212; It’s been just over five years since Hurricane Katrina devastated the southern coast of the United States. The anniversary was met with the ramifications of another catastrophe, this time man-made.

Facing the aftermath of the recent Gulf of Mexico oil spill, which was caused by an explosion on the BP rig Deepwater Horizon, President Barack Obama’s administration pledged stringent fiscal measures in order to jump-start recovery following the disaster.

“I’ll not be satisfied until the environment has been restored, no matter how long it takes,” Obama said in Panama City Beach, Florida on Aug. 14.

Many, however, simply cannot wait any longer. Life along the Gulf has become a balancing act of survival. For small fishing communities, recovery programs following Hurricane Katrina have progressed slowly. The floods and destruction claimed more than $100 billion in damages, along with the lives of over 1,500 people in New Orleans alone.

However, revival of the region was progressing until the recession flattened economic advancements in 2008, when unemployment rates rose to almost six per cent in September (compared to 3.7 per cent the previous September). The BP catastrophe seemed to deliver the final blow to the people and region of the Gulf of Mexico.

Following an explosion that took place on April 20, which claimed the lives of 11 workers on the drilling platform, millions of gallons of crude oil were released into the Gulf.

The weeks that followed the initial disaster saw varying levels of success in capping the spill. The leak was eventually capped on July 15, but not before releasing what the BBC has reported as 4.9 million barrels of crude oil into the Atlantic Ocean at a rate varying from 53,000 to 62,000 barrels a day.

What it means for wildlife

A Coast Guard operator from Tennessee, who wished to remain anonymous, said that crude oil regularly leaks from slits in the ocean floor, allowing the region to have the capacity to absorb oil via bacterium naturally occurring in the water. Weather patterns have also aided in dispersing the oil into low-threat regions. As well, the clean-up responses of both BP and the federal government have had an integral role in greatly diminishing the impact of the spill.

Yet the incident has still taken an undeniable toll. Eight U.S. national parks are threatened by oxygen depletion and petroleum toxicity. More than 400 species of animals are at risk in the Gulf region and more than 5,000 dead animals have been recovered thus far.

The spill has also taken a toll on an animal preservation program close to the hearts of Gulf natives. The Louisiana Department of Wildlife and Fisheries launched an alligator management program in 1972, which has since grown to become one of the most successful programs of its kind in the world.

Louisiana has the largest alligator population in the U.S.

In 1972, alligators numbered close to 150,000 in Louisiana. As a result of the program, the alligator population has since grown to over three million. However, the spill threatens to diminish the population.

A Consolidated Fish and Wildlife Collection Report released on Sept. 7 by the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service placed the number of dead birds, sea turtles, mammals and other reptiles collected on the coast as a result of the spill at a staggering 6,372. The number of visibly oiled live organisms collected by the service since the disaster was pegged at 2,512.

Reuters has reported that scientists are expressing concern about the effects that cannot be seen caused by underwater plumes of dispersed oil, such as longterm disruptions in the food chain.

In layman’s terms

For the people of New Orleans, the oil spill has become the primary determinant of their livelihood, whether good or bad. Many in and around the fishing communities of Louisiana endure a love-hate relationship with BP. Some quietly tolerate the presence of the oil giant, some refer to it with disdain, while others live by the company.

The quality of life for Robert Jefferson, a commercial fisherman living in Covington County, La., has increased exponentially at the hands of BP.

“We love BP,” Jefferson said. “They put me and my ship back to work right after the disaster.”

As a facet of BP’s clean-up response efforts, captains and their fishing boats were employed to help clean up the spill.

“They’re paying me $1,500 a day for my boat, they’re paying me $800 as a captain and they’re paying my wife $600 a day to continue work as my first mate as she did before,” Jefferson continued.

Many fisherman, like Jefferson, were hired to deploy and collect containment booms to absorb oil in the water.

“I’m receiving an exorbitant amount of money to continue working at a rate that none of us ever expected. Above and beyond that, I’ve been instructed that I can still sue for damages, even after all the money I’ve been paid so far,” he added.

However, Jefferson represents a minority of fishermen in the area who were selected to continue with the assistance. Many workers in the industry were ordered ashore due to the presentation of a variety of health risks.

As a result, some individuals do not share Jefferson’s enthusiasm. For those like Peter Jenning, a fisherman living near Lake Pontchartrain, La., extensive damage has already been done.

“We were unsure exactly how badly the spill would affect our lives. The oil may be cleaned up, but the spill area has become a dead zone, maybe for decades to come,” said Jenning.

“Katrina took away most of what I had and BP came along to claim the rest.”

Many feel alienated and forgotten by BP. Those in the fishing communities are unsure to what extent BP will be prosecuted and held responsible.

For now, it is a struggle for many to even become eligible for BP’s $20-billion compensation fund. Many families are confronted with the challenging decision between enduring years of litigation or accepting a settlement without being sure of the damages sustained.

Further, the existence of a controversial clause that establishes eligibility by proximity to the Gulf and the spill has complicated matters. Many fishermen or boat operators whose businesses have been directly affected by the spill should have no difficulties submitting claims.

However, out-of-state companies whose business contracts are held with partners in the affected region, for example, will be hard-pressed to make a case.

Ron Abellard, the owner of a bait and tackle shop in Meridian, Mississippi said his store has been supplying fishermen in the Gulf for nearly a decade.

“My business has suffered a lot after the spill. My lawyer has told me the outlook for claims is grim,” Abellard said. “But it’s not over, and we’ll keep pushing.”

That NOLA optimism

While recovery has been difficult, the people living in and around the Gulf area have proven their resilience.

According to the Brookings Institute, more than 90 per cent of New Orleans residents have returned to the region since Hurricane Katrina and 85 per cent of the jobs had been re-established as of June 2010. Neighbourhoods and communities have banded together in civic duty, which the Wall Street Journal has attributed to grassroots organizations, rather than governmental intervention.

“The people are very optimistic,” said Judy Leonhard, a chef in the city’s French Quarter.

“As trivial as it may sound, folks here were given a boost when the Saints won the Super Bowl.”

Leonhard explained that the team’s victory earlier symbolized how the city could transcend the ruin they faced and truly believe that success was possible.

“I feel like the Saints almost had to win to give this city the wake up it needed,” she said.

Open season

As New Orleans is experiencing some newfound buoyancy, the state of Louisiana turned its attention to the start of shrimp fishing season. Typically set on the third Monday of August, few shrimp docks actually opened at that time.

Since the spill began, certain areas of state water were kept open to harvest brown shrimp, but it was only recently that the larger, more desirable white shrimp were deemed safe for human consumption by the U.S. government.

However, it has proven difficult to convince consumers.

John Morin, a restaurant employee in the French Quarter, explained the difficulties in finding suitable seafood to serve.

“We do not sell Gulf products here,” he assured. “We simply can’t do it. The customers would never eat here.”

The majority of the Gulf of Mexico fisheries in U.S. federal waters were shut down following the spill. Overall, Louisiana accounts for 72 per cent of the seafood that is collected from the Gulf region.

According to the Louisiana Department of Wildlife and Fisheries, 17 million kilograms of seafood was caught last year. This year, the catch stands at just over six million kilograms. The department has estimated that it will be more than five years before consumers will trust the Louisiana brand again.

Looking ahead

For the population of New Orleans, the next few years present an interesting scenario. The spill has thrust the city back into the spotlight. Many residents are optimistic that this will help expose some of the lingering needs that remain unaddressed since Hurricane Katrina, such as stimulating economic diversity and rebuilding the region.

“Everyone’s focused on all the negatives here; I like to think of it as more of an opportunity. There’s a lot of unfinished business here,” said Jefferson.

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