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BP oil spill makes bad situation worse for African Americans

Manny Otiko | 8/25/2010, 5 p.m.

Having been battered by Hurricane Katrina, which dispersed African American families to the four corners of the country, many Black fishermen are now being threatened by the Gulf of Mexico oil spill.

The spill, caused by an explosion on the Deepwater Horizon oil rig, leaked about 12-19,000 barrels of oil a day into the ocean, according to figures from the United States Geological Survey. Considered the worst in U.S. history, took 88 days to stop.

Byron Encalade, president of the Louisiana Oystermen Association, said the oil spill has the potential to devastate a way of life that has gone on for generations. The Louisiana Oystermen Association is an organization that represents a diverse array fishermen including African Americans, Vietnamese, Cambodians and Native Americans.

Encalade, who is 56, said that working on the ocean is the only profession he knows. "I was 'crawing' in the ocean with my grandfather, before I went to school," Encalade noted.
He said the oil spill has brought a total halt to fishing-related business in the area. Right now he says local residents are dependent on British Petroleum (BP) living up to its word to compensate the fishermen and oystermen whose livelihoods have been ruined.

Although the government claims that the oil spill has been cleaned up, Encalade says the situation is far from being resolved. "The oil is not on the surface anymore, because it's been dispersed," Encalade said. "It went down to the bottom."

This is a point that has been echoed by filmmaker Spike Lee, who has documented the struggles of New Orleans in two HBO movies, "When the Levees Broke," which focused on Hurricane Katrina, and more recently in "If God is Willing and Da Creek Don't Rise."

Speaking on the MSNBC show "Countdown," Lee said that he initially wanted to focus on the continued reconstruction efforts after Katrina, but the oil rig explosion forced him to shoot new footage. "The last hour of the four-hour piece is all about BP," Lee said.

Although government scientists claim that most the of the oil is gone, Lee said that absence is only on the surface. University of Georgia and Georgia Sea Grant scientists say that 79 percent of the oil is still in the Gulf of Mexico.

"One major misconception is that oil that has dissolved into water is gone and, therefore, harmless," said Charles Hopkinson, director of Georgia Sea Grant and professor of marine sciences at the University of Georgia Franklin College of Arts and Sciences. "The oil is still out there, and it will likely take years to completely degrade. We are still far from a complete understanding of what its impacts are."

Local fisherman Encalade said that finding other jobs would be difficult since the coastal communities are several miles from New Orleans. He said that even if the ocean workers found work in New Orleans, they would spend most of their salaries on transportation. "We are totally reliant on BP keeping it's word," Encalade said.

Encalade said that BP has promised to come up with a compensation plan based on their income.

According to a recent press release, BP has transitioned all of its individual and business claims to the Gulf Coast Claims Facility (GCCF), led by independent administrator Kenneth Feinberg. The company said it had paid about $400 million in claims over 16 weeks that were related to the Gulf of Mexico oil spill.

BP's website states that the company has set up a process, "for managing claims and funding requests for losses and expenses incurred by states, parishes, counties, Indian tribes and other government entities and political subdivisions."

Funds are available to people in Alabama, Florida, Mississippi, as well as several local parishes in Louisiana.

But Lee said that he is leery of BP's plans. "People here are still waiting for a lot of stuff that was promised from the havoc of Hurricane Katrina and the breaching of levees, and we are getting the same thing from BP. Only 25 percent of claims have been settled," Lee said. "It's all about greed."

Lee, who has studied the work of the political and business class in New Orleans for his films, said that there is a lot of blame to go around.

"We have people in office and people in big positions, who only care about the dollar, and if people die or people get harmed, they say, 'That's the cost of doing business.'"

The filmmaker said faulty engineering caused the levees to break and shoddy work caused the explosion on the rig. "The whole thing is in disarray down here," according to Congresswoman Laura Richardson.

The Rev. Jesse Jackson has also been very critical of BP.

"BP, which has one of the worst health and safety records of any oil company--from the Texas City explosion that killed 15 people, to leaks in the Alaska pipeline, to rigging the markets in the Midwest--has shown little concern about the welfare of people and communities. It may have the 'equipment and expertise,' but it does not have the interest of the people and the surrounding Gulf Coast communities and industries at heart," Jackson said.

Burnell Tolbert, president of the Lafourche Parish branch of the NAACP, said the oil spill is just one of several disasters to hit Louisiana. Tolbert said he has evacuated twice, once for Hurricane Gustav and also for Katrina.

He said the situation is beginning to get better, but its going to take a long time to clean up the Gulf. "It's a long process," he said. "We are hoping and praying that BP sticks by their word."

Tolbert added that although many fishermen are out of work, some of them have found work on clean up crews. Tolbert was recently part of a team of local officials who went out with a delegation from the Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) to oversee some of the clean up.

He also added that apart from devastating the fishing industry, the oil spill has also affected the restaurant industry. "People are worried about eating sea food," Tolbert said. "It's expensive now."

Tolbert added that it will be difficult for the region and the fishermen to recover from the effects of the oil spill. The economic and environmental devastation is also having an emotional impact on local residents, much like Katrina. Mental health experts have shown that after Katrina there was a rise in suicides, divorces, incidences of cancer and children with behavioral problems.

Tolbert said he recently read that BP donated $15 million to mental health issues after a local fisherman committed suicide. Losing a family tradition that has been around for generations puts a lot of emotional stress on people, Tolbert said. "For a lot of these guys, (fishing) is a way of life."

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