It was fitting that I was standing on board an oyster boat in Louisiana’s Barataria Bay yesterday when news broke that a federal judge had ruled BP “grossly negligent” for the largest oil spill in U.S. history—a ruling that could cost the company up to almost $18 billion for “willful misconduct” that caused an oil rig explosion that killed 11 people and spewed millions of barrels of oil into the Gulf of Mexico.
I’ve been reconnecting this week with many of the people that I met in the aftermath of that 2010 spill, as I reported on it myself and assisted other journalists who covered the story in southeastern Louisiana. Those shrimpers and fishermen and other residents of Plaquemines Parish, which was devastated by Hurricane Katrina nearly five years earlier, say little has changed since their tiny community became ground zero for the BP cleanup effort. They still complain of declining health, deformed wildlife, and disrupted livelihoods.
Yesterday I was about to embark on a tour of an oil-damaged Louisiana fishery with a group attending the Society of Environmental Journalists conference in New Orleans, where only the night before, a BP spokesman had blamed “opportunistic environmentalists,” shoddy science, and sloppy journalism for making the ecological impact of the spill look much worse than it actually was.
U.S. District Court Judge Carl Barbier obviously doesn't see it that way. He concluded yesterday that BP had shown a “conscious disregard of known risks” during the drilling operation, and thus bears most of the responsibility for the blowout and its consequences. Starting in January, he’ll decide how much money BP should pay for the damage, but under the federal Clean Water Act, a finding of gross negligence exposes the company to a higher level of fines, which could total close to $18 billion.
“This is big,” someone else aboard the oyster boat muttered as he absorbed yesterday’s news on his cellphone. BP immediately issued a statement saying it would appeal the decision, which surprised no one. BP and its drilling partners Transocean and Halliburton are already on the hook for at least $4 billion in fines and penalties and have agreed to pay much more toward cleanup costs (though there are questions about how quickly the money is flowing). Whatever amount they ultimately fork over will go toward attempting to repair the destruction to the Gulf’s environment and its fisheries.
But that’s cold comfort to the salt-of-the-earth Gulf fishermen and families I met in the wake of the spill. They hail from a unique Cajun culture and tradition that is increasingly threatened by rising tides, sinking lands, marsh-killing levies, and oil and gas operations. (OnEarth contributor Barry Yeoman wrote about the confluence of these factors and their impact on the Gulf’s people in his 2010 series “Losing Louisiana.”)
Just a few days before the ruling, I visited with David and Kindra Arnesen, who are raising two young children in Buras, Louisiana. David, who worked on the oil cleanup efforts, says he suffers from headaches, memory loss, and fatigue, which make it nearly impossible for him to work his shrimp boat through the night, as he did before the spill. The Arnesens have put their newly re-built house up for sale, hoping to get away from Buras. They have little hope of selling it for a decent price.
I’ve heard similar stories across the region: concerns about personal health, economic health, and environmental health. To be sure, southeastern Louisiana had a lot of problems before the spill. But tar balls, submerged oil, and contaminated seafood have made the future even more uncertain.
“We don’t know what to expect,” says Acy Cooper, a leader of the Louisiana Shrimp Association. “Nothing seems normal anymore.”
And whether additional fines on BP and its partners can rebuild the livelihoods and communities they have damaged remains to be seen. Louisiana Oystermen Association President Byron Encalade, who lives in the largely African-American community of Pointe a La Hache on the eastern side of the Mississippi River, thinks the government has given up on them.
Encalade, who is a veteran of the Vietnam War, says his community was devastated after oyster reefs were wiped out by a combination of freshwater diversions and oil after the spill. Nearly five years later, few new baby oysters are taking hold, he says, and that spells long-term trouble for a commodity that can take years to develop. “It’s like we’ve been forgotten over here,” says Encalade. “I fought for my country, and this is what we get in return.”
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