Boat People SOS, a national Vietnamese American organization working with fishing communities impacted by the BP oil spill in Alabama.
president of the Louisiana Justice Institute
One year after the BP Deepwater Horizon oil rig blowout in the Gulf of Mexico, residents of affected coastal communities have reported health ailments such as severe coughing, migraines and irritations that are consistent with common symptoms of chemical exposure. Fishermen and shrimpers have reported record losses in sales and fear the spill will cause long-term damage to marine life and the economy of the region. Many residents report problems with receiving compensation claims from BP. We’re joined by David Pham of Boat People SOS, a national Vietnamese American organization working with fishing communities impacted by the BP oil spill in Alabama. We also speak with Tracie Washington, president of the Louisiana Justice Institute in New Orleans. [includes rush transcript]
AMY GOODMAN: In this special broadcast on the first anniversary of the BP Deepwater Horizon blowout on the Gulf of Mexico, the worst oil spill in U.S. history, we look at the disaster’s health and environmental impacts. Residents of affected coastal communities have reported health ailments, such as severe coughing, migraines, eye irritation, that are consistent with common symptoms of chemical exposure. As health bills mount, Gulf Coast residents’ livelihood options have plummeted. Fishermen, shrimpers have reported record loss in sales. They fear the spill will cause long-term damage to marine life and the economy of the region. Anglers are reporting dark lesions, rotting fins, discoloration in the fish they’re catching in the Gulf. Meanwhile, some scientists remain concerned that dispersants used in the spill cleanup may have damaged endangered species [or] their habitat.
For more, we’re going to go to Mobile, Alabama, to speak with David Pham of Boat People SOS, a national Vietnamese American organization working with fishing communities impacted by the BP oil spill. He’s joining us by Democracy Now! video stream. In New Orleans, we’re joined by Tracie Washington, president of the Louisiana Justice Institute, which works with communities of color and for impoverished communities. And we’re joined by Kieran Suckling, executive director of the Center for Biological Diversity. He’s joining us from Portland, Oregon.
David Pham, let’s begin with you. Explain where we are one year later. The Vietnamese American fisherpeople that you work with, the communities you work with, where do we stand today?
DAVID PHAM: Good morning, Amy. Thank you for having us.
One year later, we see that we’re in the same situation as last year, where no one really knows what’s next, where last year we didn’t know if it was going to affect as far as Alabama and our fishing industry, but this year a lot of our community members just don’t know what’s in store for them next. Will they — we’re waiting on our final claims, but what happens after the claim process is done? Can they go back to work? If they can’t go back to work, what can they do? Because I tell a lot of people, shucking oysters and picking crab — peeling crab doesn’t really translate to any other kind of job skills.
AMY GOODMAN: Can you talk about what has happened overall to the livelihood of the people you represent, your organization, Boat People SOS, and who you represent, what you mean by the "boat people"?
DAVID PHAM: Boat People SOS started about 30 years ago as an organization to help Vietnamese refugees that were coming over after the Vietnam War. After Katrina, we opened three offices in the Gulf Coast to meet the needs of the Vietnamese American community. And with the oil spill, we expanded our assistance to just not the Vietnamese American, but Southeast Asian, but then into the entire Mobile County community. And — I’m sorry, can you repeat the question?
AMY GOODMAN: What has happened a year later, the health effects, the economic effects, on the people that you represent?
DAVID PHAM: Pretty much — we could say that in Bayou La Batre itself, about 70 to 75 percent of the city became unemployed, because in the city we only have two industries: its seafood and shipbuilding. And shipbuilding is down because of the recession, and now BP has stopped our fishing industry. So we had a situation where a vast majority of our community members were unemployed, and they were relying on a system that was supposed to be easy for them to assist them, but really it just caused more headaches and pains for families.
AMY GOODMAN: The Louisiana Environmental Action Network has gathered personal testimony from disaster response workers, as well as divers, fishers, coastal residents, dealing with unusual health problems since the BP spill. Clayton Matherne was working as an engineer in the area when the Deepwater Horizon rig exploded.
CLAYTON MATHERNE: I can barely even get up out of bed. I have trouble breathing. I can’t remember anything. I’ve lost half my eyesight. I cough up and spit up blood all the time. I shake and tremble all the time. I can’t even open a bottle of water or even hold a bottle of water in my hands. The chemical poisoning causes headaches so bad that it puts pressure on the nerves in my brain and causes my body to be paralyzed.
AMY GOODMAN: I want to turn to Tracie Washington, president of the Louisiana Justice Institute, working with communities of color throughout the Gulf. Tracie, how typical is this description?
TRACIE WASHINGTON: You know, it is unfortunately what researchers or, you know, the government would call just anecdotal. I don’t consider it just anecdotal, because you hear some level of physical harm from many of the fishers down there, whenever you go down to Plaquemines or lower Jefferson Parish. Now, there are different levels, obviously, Amy, but people are hurting. And unfortunately, what they’re hearing back from government officials is, "Well, there is no actual connection," or "We can’t make any connection between the oil spill and the effects of the oil spill and what you are saying are physical symptoms of physical harm." And I’m questioning how long do these folks have to wait before you can make these ties and then determine there will be payment, compensation, from this BP fund, so that they, too, these people who have been physically harmed, will be made whole.
AMY GOODMAN: You have said, "We can’t spray dispersant on poor people and expect they go away." Explain what you mean.
TRACIE WASHINGTON: Well, unfortunately — and it was analogy I made to what we do all the time here — I mean, with this oil spill, they expected that going out into the Gulf and spraying dispersant would make the oil disappear. I mean, basic physics: matter is neither created nor destroyed, it only changes forms. Well, it’s just sunk down to the bottom of the Gulf. These poor people haven’t gone away just because you’ve come in and thrown a couple of dollars here and there, Amy. There are still poor people here. They are still vulnerable, very vulnerable, to disasters, be it man-made or be it by nature. We had Katrina. Then we had BP, which was man-made. But we still have the same poor people victimized by these disasters. And what we’ve not figured out or what we’ve not done as a nation, as is the government’s responsibility, which is how to make these people less vulnerable.
AMY GOODMAN: Well, how would you say people should be made less vulnerable? First of all, you have a much smaller population, certainly a smaller population of people of color, in New Orleans from Katrina to, well, what we saw here with the BP oil spill. It’s just shrunk.
TRACIE WASHINGTON: It has just shrunk. And following on what your last guest said, I mean, we have to make it such that those communities are not relying solely on one, possibly two, industries. In lower Plaquemines — lower Jefferson and Plaquemines Parish, you’ve got the oil industry and the fishing industry. Well, they can’t coexist. Oil and water can’t coexist. And unfortunately, we’ve placed these people in an environment and communities where they’ve got to basically choose. And it’s a horrible choice. They can fish. I think it’s a natural way of life for many of these communities. But you can’t have fishing in the same place where you’ve got, you know, these oil wells and this drilling. We know there are going to be disasters. We know there are going to be these types of spills. And we’ve got to make it such that these folks are less vulnerable to the economic damage that comes from this.
Now, you know, BP and Ken Feinberg have said that they are not going to pay damages for these oyster leases, the damages to oyster beds. Well, why not? Why are we — why are we forcing these folks to basically lose their — completely lose their way of life before we wait five, 10 years from now to say, "You know what? Maybe the oil did damage the oyster beds." They shouldn’t have to come in and prove that. There should be a presumption that this oil that is now at the bottom of the Gulf is destroying oyster beds and oyster leases and that we pay and compensate these people for that.
AMY GOODMAN: Speaking about the environment and how it’s been affected, we’re also joined by Kieran Suckling, executive director of the Center for Biological Diversity. Can you talk about this first anniversary and what we’ve seen since the massive explosion in the Gulf one year ago today, Kieran?
KIERAN SUCKLING: Well, the impact on wildlife has been devastating. We’ve estimated that over 6,000 sea turtles were killed; 26,000 marine mammals, including dolphins and porpoises, were killed; and on the order of 82,000 seabirds. And one of the worst things is, is that the death is still happening. The disaster is not over. So at this very moment, dolphins and sea turtles are still washing up onshore dead and covered with oil.
AMY GOODMAN: Talk about the dispersants that were used.
KIERAN SUCKLING: Yeah, the dispersants are particularly disturbing, because the oil was bad enough, then we sprayed this highly toxic dispersant on it, which is actually four times more toxic than the oil to many of the wildlife. And so, the oil did not disappear, but it was broken down into smaller parts, where it sunk into the water column, in some places onto the bottom of the sea. And so, now you’ve got this unbelievable chemical soup out there on the order that’s never been seen before. There’s never been an oil disaster where we’ve sprayed this much dispersant into the ocean not knowing its impact on wildlife. And so, the dispersant we sprayed out there is also killing wildlife. And indeed, my group, the Center for Biological Diversity, just filed a lawsuit challenging the continued use of dispersant in future spills, because it’s a horrific way to address these oil spills. It’s all about hiding the oil, not about cleaning it up.
AMY GOODMAN: Now, you have litigation pending around the dispersants, right?
KIERAN SUCKLING: Yes, that’s exactly right, because despite all the horror that was caused by the dispersants, it’s still the government’s position that they would use those dispersants on the next spill coming up. The American public don’t know what all the chemicals are in the dispersants. There’s never been an environmental analysis of their effects on wildlife and on people. And we’re saying to the government, "You cannot go forward and use this again, minimally until you at least figure out what the environmental effects are, but preferably not to use it at all."
AMY GOODMAN: I mean, it’s — looking at ProPublica, which just won the Pulitzer Prize in another exposé, they write, "Two types of dispersants BP is spraying in the Gulf [of Mexico] are banned for use on oil spills in the U.K.," which is interesting — BP is British Petroleum. So they can’t use it there, but it’s used in the Gulf. "As EPA-approved products, BP has been using them in greater quantities than dispersants have ever been used in the history of U.S. oil spills." Kieran?
KIERAN SUCKLING: Yeah, it was really just spectacular that — what happened out there with the dispersants. I think the government was really playing Russian roulette in letting BP go forward with this. And you mention the dispersants that they were using were actually banned in Europe. So one of the issues they had is they had a large amount of this dispersant, they were banned from using it in Europe, and they had to move it. They had to ship it, and this was their chance to actually sell it, make some money on a product that they can’t use anywhere else. And so, they poured millions of gallons of it into the ocean.
And dispersants, in particular, have a very damaging effect on the small wildlife and the invertebrates. So, for example, the oyster beds were hit really hard by this. And unfortunately, just as the sea turtles and dolphins are still dying today, if we go out and use this dispersant again, this disaster is going to just keep rolling and rolling and rolling. And it points to the fact that we have not addressed the fundamental problems with offshore oil drilling. We still do not have a method of containing or cleaning up further oil spills, but yet we’re going forward with new drilling all the time.
AMY GOODMAN: David Pham, the compensation process, how has it been conducted overall, and has it differentially affected the people you represent, the South Asian community of Mobile, Alabama, and the whole Gulf?
DAVID PHAM: Well, the process is — we see it’s always been a little bit complicated. You know, just for the regular community member, the mainstream American community member, it’s hard for them to understand. So you can imagine how a community that has very limited English skills — some probably don’t have any kind of educational level higher than second grade — to understand a system that pretty much their livelihoods depend on right now, because other than that, government assistance is not really helping out. So we had a situation where we were relying on British Petroleum and GCCF to provide adequate translation or interpretation of the process, but we — that was lacking. In Bayou La Batre, for example, we had one claims adjuster that was Vietnamese. So, the days that he was out of the office, a lot of our clients sat around waiting or were even told to come back another day when he was there. And for our Laotian and Cambodian communities, there was never an adjuster that was from their community working there to assist them. So you can imagine, they were — went through way more problems than the Vietnamese American community in Bayou La Batre did.
AMY GOODMAN: I wanted to ask Tracie Washington also about the issue of claims and play a clip for you on this issue of the government, of BP, being involved with claims. Louis Bayhi is a Louisiana charter boat captain who suffered from various health problems after he served on an oil spill cleanup crew. Louisiana Environmental Action Network documented how he also failed to receive compensation from BP.
LOUIS BAYHI: I don’t know if anybody else didn’t get their money, but I didn’t get my money. And at the end of the deal, they owed us, you know, a month of time, which is a good chunk of change, and two boats that are on standby that we couldn’t use to do anything else but BP work. So, in other words, BP right now, according to their contracts, not mine, they owe me about $225,000, which I call that retarded. But I mean, I didn’t make the deal. They did.
AMY GOODMAN: Tracie Washington —
TRACIE WASHINGTON: Yes.
AMY GOODMAN: — from BP to the federal government, the compensation and the whole process, how it has worked, particularly in the communities you work with?
TRACIE WASHINGTON: You know, it’s absolutely insane, and it’s just beyond frustrating. Your last guest talked about the fact that the boat people, you know, the Southeast Asian community, with limited English-speaking abilities and education issues, have a problem navigating the system, Amy. Well, I have a bachelor’s, master’s and law degree, and I still have problems. And I am representing many of these individuals who have claims. First, you have problems, as the person on your last clip indicated, with folks who were not paid for doing direct work for BP with the cleanup after, you know, the spill, but working on the cleanup. And then, unfortunately, we have this massive group of people who are still waiting to be paid through Ken Feinberg, our czar, with their income claims, be it small businesses or individuals. These people now seem to be far more concerned about protecting BP from being ripped off than they are about ensuring folks get paid. $20 billion set aside, and Mr. Feinberg has managed to pay out $4 billion?
Yesterday we received a press release announcing a big payout on one claim. And, you know, I wrote back to Mr. Feinberg, because our organization, Louisiana Justice Institute, is one of the public interest law firms that has been assisting individuals with claims in this process. And I said, you know, "Well, thank you for that press release on the eve of this commemoration of the BP spill. But we need more than just one, Mr. Feinberg. What have you been doing aside from sending people to the U.S. attorney’s office for overbilling BP by $4,000, $5,000, and then putting them in jail? Put the BP executives in jail. You need to pay these." It’s beyond frustrating, and I know I’m getting upset all over again. But we get the telephone calls, Amy, down here, with people saying, "Ms. Washington, Attorney Washington, please, help us. Help us get our money. We hear one thing from GCCF. We hear another thing when we call BP directly. What are we supposed to do?" I’m an attorney, and I still can’t help them.
AMY GOODMAN: Do you feel that the federal government has improved in its emergency response after Katrina, then after the BP oil spill?
TRACIE WASHINGTON: What I fear most, Amy, is that the federal government has learned and now mastered how to outsource claims adjustment, so that now, and the fire next time, when we get the next disaster, be it a Katrina or be it a BP, we will have 10 Ken Feinbergs versus just the regular federal bureaucracy. I just as soon call someone in the Department of Energy, call someone in Salazar’s office, than have to deal with an outsourced Ken Feinberg. You know, I want to be able to say there’s somebody in the government responsible. Now if you call the federal government, they say, "Call Ken Feinberg." That’s just not satisfactory.
AMY GOODMAN: Tracie Washington, Louisiana Justice Institute, thanks so much for joining us from New Orleans.