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On Front Lines of BP Oil Spill: Democracy Now! Travels Across Coastal Louisiana

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The Justice Department has confirmed it’s opened a criminal and civil investigation into the BP oil spill in the Gulf Coast, now believed to be the worst environmental disaster in US history. For residents of southern Louisiana, the spill is impacting the ecology, the economy and entire ways of life. Over the past several days, Democracy Now! traveled across the bayous and towns of coastal Louisiana meeting the people on the front lines of the onrush of BP’s oil slick. [includes rush transcript]

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This is a rush transcript. Copy may not be in its final form.

SHARIF ABDEL KOUDDOUS: We’re going to go right now to the latest news in Israel, but first we’re going to go to BP. The Justice Department has confirmed it’s opened a criminal investigation — criminal and civil investigation into the BP oil spill in the Gulf Coast, now believed to be the worst environmental disaster in US history. For residents of southern Louisiana, the spill is impacting the ecology, the economy and entire ways of life.

AMY GOODMAN: Over the past several days, we traveled across the bayous and towns of coastal Louisiana, meeting the people of the front lines of the onrush of BP’s oil slick. On Sunday, our day began in the air.

    AMY GOODMAN: I’m Amy Goodman, reporting to you from a cargo and transport plane of the US Coast Guard, flying over the BP catastrophe, the worst environmental disaster in US history. Arrogance, hubris, that’s what we see when we look down, the hundreds of miles of gulf with the sheen of oil, either the red-brick oil sludge, is what it looks like, or the sheen of oil. In an odd way, it looks like a map with the borders of countries. But this oil knows no borders.

    LAWRENCE CHAMBERS: Lawrence Chambers, I’m a public affairs specialist of the US Coast Guard. We are looking at a massive amount of oil that’s spilled in the Gulf of Mexico. You’re seeing the big ribbons of that red, brick-red oil. You’re also seeing a lot of sheen oil and emulsified oil. That brick-red stuff is the stuff that we’re really going to be able to clean up the most easily. It’s collectable. We can burn it, or we can skim it.

    AMY GOODMAN: What about the dispersant? Then you don’t see it as clearly, but it’s there underneath.

    LAWRENCE CHAMBERS: Yeah, I don’t know if we can see the dispersant from where we’re flying, but yeah, the dispersant is going to be mixing with that oil and going into the water column. It’s not going to be sitting on top of the water.

    AMY GOODMAN: Are you concerned about the effects of the dispersant?

    LAWRENCE CHAMBERS: Well, I don’t know enough about it to be concerned one way or the other.

    AMY GOODMAN: You’ve dealt with other oil spills?


    AMY GOODMAN: Is this the biggest?

    LAWRENCE CHAMBERS: Well, yeah. I think everybody’s aware, this is the biggest in US waters. This is not Exxon Valdez, which I never worked on. I think the largest oil spill I’ve worked on so far is about 250,000 gallons. That was in the Mississippi River two years ago. So, of course, this trumps that by far.

    AMY GOODMAN: Your ID says BP. Why is that?

    LAWRENCE CHAMBERS: Well, actually, if you look here, you’ll see it says “US Coast Guard Federal.” It identifies who I am. As we’ve been trying to make clear, we’re part of the unified area of command. That “unified” is important, because it means that, you know, we are working with BP closely, we are working with MMS closely, and we’re working with all of our other agency partners to make sure that this gets cleaned up as soon as possible. You’ll see that my photo was taken — you know, this process is owned by BP, because we’re using a BP facility.

    AMY GOODMAN: What’s the BP facility?

    LAWRENCE CHAMBERS: Well, let me clarify that, actually, because it’s a Shell facility being used by BP that’s just tracking personnel so they know who’s coming and going. There’s a why the Coast Guard isn’t working alone, because the Coast Guard can’t solve this problem alone. It’s going to take the industry. They’re the experts. They have the scientists and engineers that can get this closed. We’re here to oversee and make sure that it’s done properly and safely.

AMY GOODMAN: After we landed, the cargo and transport plane landed, at the airbase in Hammond, we began driving toward Grand Isle, the site where President Obama had just visited days before. We met with Dean Blanchard, the owner of the largest shrimp business in the area. He took us out on his boat.

    AMY GOODMAN: This is Barataria Bay, the most fertile fishing grounds, says Dean Blanchard, in the United States, and we’ve come up to Queen Bess Island. It’s a bird sanctuary. It’s just covered in oil.

    Dean, what kind of birds are here in these oily marshlands?

    DEAN BLANCHARD: You’ve got hundreds of birds, but mostly right now what you’re seeing is seagulls and pelican, our state bird.

    AMY GOODMAN: What happens to them when they get covered in this oil that’s just [inaudible]?

    DEAN BLANCHARD: Ah, they can either die or somebody will find them and they get cleaned up, you know? But if they’re left to nature, they’ll die, you know? They can’t fly. It’ll mess up their flying. If this would’ve happened a month ago, when the birds first got here, you’d have hundreds of species of birds out here. We had a birdwatcher convention about a month ago down here.

    AMY GOODMAN: Is there dispersant on my hands, too?

    DEAN BLANCHARD: I wouldn’t eat with them without washing them. And I’ll wash them real good.

    AMY GOODMAN: What’s that?

    DEAN BLANCHARD: That’s a fish finder. That’ll tell you everything that’s on the bottom. They got a piece sticking up. You see, that’s all underneath right here. See this? There’s these globs of oil that’s mixed with the dispersment that float.

    AMY GOODMAN: Underneath the water?

    DEAN BLANCHARD: Underneath the water. They’re sinking it so nobody could see it. Y’all want to go on the beach? Beach is right around that corner right there.

    AMY GOODMAN: What’s that in the water?

    DEAN BLANCHARD: Looks like a dead redfish. He got caught in the oil spill. The redfish that size usually live in the Gulf. So he came — he’s coming in with the tide. The tide’s switching right now. It won’t be long for the oil, will be right behind the fish. I don’t think it’s going to be inhabitable after this weekend. I think we’re going to have to leave our homes. We’ve got fishermen getting sick on the boat in the middle of the oil. What’s the difference of being on an island in the middle of surrounded by oil or being on a boat all day, you understand? So we’re going to have to leave. We won’t be able to stand the smell. And no telling what — you know, how long before you’re dead.

    JACQUIE SOOHEN: If you left, how long do you think you’d have to be away for? When do you think you’d be able to come back and be fishing again?

    DEAN BLANCHARD: Maybe never. I don’t know. In Alaska, it’s twenty years. I’ll be seventy, seventy-one years old. There’s a twenty-year thing in Alaska, and the herring still ain’t back.

    AMY GOODMAN: The fisherman who’s in the hospital, where was he working?

    DEAN BLANCHARD: Outside of Venice, I believe. The planes sprayed him, what happened. The plane, they got kind of confused where the boats were at and where the planes sprayed, you know? You know, the stuff, they claim it’s similar to Agent Orange, what they sprayed in Vietnam, you know?

    AMY GOODMAN: What did he say his symptoms were?

    DEAN BLANCHARD: I didn’t talk to him, but I talked to a guy that went visit him, and I believe it was eyes crying, a shortness of breath, basically all the same symptoms that we read in the computer that you’ll get from the dispersment they’re spraying, you know?

    AMY GOODMAN: I can’t believe we just saw a porpoise.

    DEAN BLANCHARD: Oh, it’s full of them. You’ll see a bunch more. They said they found nineteen of them dead already.

    AMY GOODMAN: On shore, I speak with Dean Blanchard outside his shrimping facility in Grand Isle, Louisiana. I ask him to talk about how the BP oil spill has impacted the shrimping business.

    DEAN BLANCHARD: Everybody’s upset here. They put us out of business. We’d usually have ninety people working right now. We’d have five, six hundred fishermen running around here. You couldn’t be standing up right here, if it’d be a regular day without BP, you know?


    So, what did BP do? What do you think of what they did?

    DEAN BLANCHARD: What did they do? They — twenty-eight years’ worth of work, and they completely shut me down. You know, they put me out of business. A

    AMY GOODMAN: How much of the water here is closed? How many of the beaches?

    DEAN BLANCHARD: Everything is closed. For a boat to bring me seafood, he has to travel fourteen hours.

    AMY GOODMAN: What do you mean?

    DEAN BLANCHARD: The closest fishing ground from here takes fourteen hours to get to. So they effectively have put a circle around me.

    AMY GOODMAN: How long have you been shut down?

    DEAN BLANCHARD: We never really got started. We never got started. You got to understand how our business works. They didn’t just shut us down in the middle of a week. We’re like farmers. We lose money in January, February, March and April, preparing to harvest our crop in May, June and July. So we spend a lot of money preparing to get to May, and as soon as we got to May, we were completely shut down, so we neve even got started.

    AMY GOODMAN: How much would you say you’ve lost so far?

    DEAN BLANCHARD: About a million-and-a-half dollars. BP’s just looking for their bottom line, you know? They don’t live here, BP. They think they could come here, and they’re being allowed — by spreading money around to senators and congressmen and lobbyists, they’ve been allowed to do that for a long time. And apparently they’ve got the Coast Guard in their pocket, because the Coast Guard is supposed to be regulating them, and the Coast Guard is relying on what BP’s telling them. I know if spill two gallons of oil in the water, they’re going to give me a $150,000 fine, you know, and a $150,000 fine is like about two cents to BP compared to what it is to me, you know? And it’s just a shame that the United States of America has two standards: one for the regular people and one for big corporations. You know, that’s not — how did we get to this point, you know? That’s got to stop. That’s got to stop now.

    AMY GOODMAN: So, talk about the damage done in this area.

    DEAN BLANCHARD: It’s not the damage. It’s a way of life. They destroyed a way of life, a way of life that if you take it away too long, you can’t learn this in a school. This is passed from generation to generation, so the daddy teaches the son, and the son teaches his son. And, you know, once the chain is broke, you’re never going to get it back. You know, you could kill every lawyer tomorrow, but come May, you’re going to have a new graduation class coming out. With shrimping, it’s different. Once you cut the chain, it’ll never come back.

    AMY GOODMAN: How long have you been in this area?

    DEAN BLANCHARD: All my life. All my life.

    AMY GOODMAN: And your family, your parents?

    DEAN BLANCHARD: My parents had a seafood company. My grandparents had a seafood company. And the other side of my — my other grandparents was in the oil business. So I grew up a little of both, you know? We don’t want to see the oil business end, but we want to see unsafe practices end. And they ought to be punished to make sure that this never happens again. When you liability a company to a day and a quarter’s work, you know, the original liability was $75 million. If you take $75 million and divide it into $6 billion for a quarter, it’s a day and a quarter’s work, was the only liability they had to worry about. If you only had to worry about losing your driver’s license for a day and a quarter for drunk driving, you’d drink and drive. You wouldn’t worry, huh? And that’s the problem, you know? They got such a good deal, they became complacent. And they were just looking at the bottom line and not looking at the consequences. So we got to teach BP a lesson.

    AMY GOODMAN: Were there warning signs?

    DEAN BLANCHARD: Oh, of course, of course. You know, look, I’m in the shrimp business, but I eat breakfast with people that retired out the oil company every morning. We got a, you know, small town breakfast deal. And, you know, BP been having a bad reputation for a long time, you know?

    AMY GOODMAN: In what way?

    DEAN BLANCHARD: Well, they’re known for cutting corners and being a cheap company, you know? Not following all the rules. Look what happened.

    AMY GOODMAN: Tony Hayworth, the CEO of BP, was asked about workers getting sick. And he said we should think about food poisoning, because a lot of people are out here, and an army, he says, is ruled by its stomach.

    DEAN BLANCHARD: So you mean to tell me he wasn’t satisfied with running us out of business, he’s going to come in here and insult our cajun cooking? Come on. You’ve got four different crews on four different boats that get sick, and for some kind of way, all four of 'em, four cajun people that's known for their cooking, would serve bad food? No, it’s impossible. He’s just looking for excuse. If he was so worried about the cooking, why did he confiscate the people’s clothes that were brought to the hospital? Once they were put into hospital gowns, their clothes was taken by BP, is what I understand. So I don’t think you need people’s clothes to test for food poisoning. You’d only need people’s clothes to test for chemical poisoning.

    AMY GOODMAN: So far none of the sick workers has spoken publicly. All sign confidentiality agreements with BP that bar them from speaking to the news media. Outside Dean Blanchard’s shrimp facility, we see some fishermen coming off a boat. I try to speak to them.

    DEAN BLANCHARD: Basically BP’s holding these people hostage. They’re putting them in a toxic environment with no training, and they ain’t go no choice. But, you know, they don’t —- they’re used to working in a cash business. They’ve got to be paid. They borrowed everything they could to get their boats ready to go shrimping, and when it was time to harvest, just like me, they’re broke. They ain’t got no choice. So they ain’t no different than a terrorist. They’re holding these people hostage, is what they’re doing. And they’re so scared, they don’t want to come out of their room. They’re threatening them, I’m telling you. They sign contracts. If they say something, they’re fired.

    AMY GOODMAN: Could we ask to talk to them?

    DEAN BLANCHARD: You could try.

    AMY GOODMAN: Could we ask you a few questions about the oil on your boom?

    FISHERMAN: I’d rather not. I’d rather not get involved right now.

    AMY GOODMAN: What?

    FISHERMAN: I’d rather not get involved right -—

    AMY GOODMAN: But so, this comes from where, the oil on your booms?

    FISHERMAN: Dean, I can’t get involved with that, Dean.

    DEAN BLANCHARD: Yeah, I told them that. They don’t believe me.

    AMY GOODMAN: Does BP get upset if you say anything?

    Well, all the best to you.

    FISHERMAN: Yes, ma’am.

    DEAN BLANCHARD: They’re scared, you know? They got 'em hostage. If they get fired, there's no way for them to make a living. And BP wants to give you a one-time payment of $5,000. My bills are $5,260 a day. What am I going to do with? Does it matter to me if I go broke on a Tuesday or a Wednesday? You know? I mean, come on. It’s a joke, you know? The American President — the President ought to be ashamed of himself. That’s who’s — I hold him responsible right now. The President, I voted for that man. It was one of the worst mistakes I ever made. I thought he was a man and he was going to bring about change. But if this is change, it’s not change for the better. The President ought to be ashamed of himself.

AMY GOODMAN: That was Dean Blanchard. He owns one of the largest shrimp businesses in southern Louisiana. On Tuesday, one of Louisiana’s major fishing rodeos in Grand Isle, where Dean Blanchard is, has been canceled because of the Gulf of Mexico oil spill. It attracts some 2,000 contestants every year and thousands of tourists.

When we come back from break, we speak with another fisherman who reiterates the point that in signing contracts with BP, he had to also sign that he would not speak to the press. And then we’ll speak with two ambassadors, the deputy ambassador to the United Nations from Israel, about the Israeli commando attack on the flotilla bringing humanitarian aid into Gaza, and former US ambassador Ed Peck. He was on one of those boats. Stay with us.


AMY GOODMAN: We continue our trip through the Gulf. In the town of Buras, Louisiana, we met up with a longtime fisherman named Glenn Swift. Like many fishermen, he signed up with BP to help with the cleanup. He confirmed that he signed a contract with a clause stating that speaking to the media was grounds for termination.

    AMY GOODMAN: In the contract that they sign to get paid, that the fishermen sign to get paid, they are not allowed to speak?

    GLENN SWIFT: Right. It says that it’s grounds for termination of employment.

    AMY GOODMAN: Have you seen that on the paper?

    GLENN SWIFT: Yes, mm-hmm.

    AMY GOODMAN: Who showed it to you?

    GLENN SWIFT: They actually gave us a contract that we signed. I’m not sure, but maybe that contract’s been done a lawyer, but I don’t know.

    AMY GOODMAN: Did you sign it?


    AMY GOODMAN: So why are you talking to me?

    GLENN SWIFT: I don’t feel it’s the right thing to shut somebody up, you know, just because you’re working for them. We’re supposed to live in the United States, and we’re supposed to have freedom of speech.

AMY GOODMAN: That was fisherman Glenn Swift. When we went on to Grand Isle, Louisiana, on Highway 1, we stopped in the town of Larose.

    AMY GOODMAN: We’re here in southern Louisiana, about an hour and a half from New Orleans, on our way to Grand Isle to see the beaches there. The oil has already hit. And as we’re coming through Larose, we see this street sculpture, which is a little girl and a man. They both have gas masks on. He’s carrying a dead fish. And the sign says, “God help us all!” It’s in the parking lot of a tattoo parlor. It’s called Southern Sting Tattoo Parlor. We’re going to go talk to the owners, because it looks like they’re painting more signs.

    BOBBY PITRE: My name is Bobby Pitre.

    AMY GOODMAN: Bobby Pitre?

    BOBBY PITRE: Yes, ma’am.

    AMY GOODMAN: And where do you live?

    BOBBY PITRE: Right here, in this tattoo shop. I live upstairs.

    AMY GOODMAN: In the tattoo shop. So tell us about the kind of statue or art you have out there with the man and the child wearing gas masks.

    BOBBY PITRE: It’s basically our reality, as far as I could see it. The future of us is pretty much questionable.

    AMY GOODMAN: What does the sign say that they’re holding?

    BOBBY PITRE: It says, “God help us all!” because I don’t think there’s anything that man can do at this point to really prevent the spill from reaching us, reaching our marshes. And just, we need a miracle, is what we really need, you know? That’s how I see it. It’s going to kill everything in our marshes, our whole way of life. It’s just going to kill us, you know? We’re going to have to do something different, either find different ways to make livings —- I believe we’re going to have to move out of this. It’s sad, you know? It’s really sad.

    AMY GOODMAN: What are you painting now?

    BOBBY PITRE: This is going to be -— it’s going to say, “Louisiana Water Tower,” and I’m going to have “water” scratched out, and I’m going to have “oil” in place of “water.” The future of the South.

AMY GOODMAN: Bobby Pitre at his tattoo shop in Larose, Louisiana. This is Democracy Now!,, the War and Peace Report. Again, the latest news, the White House says they will no longer hold joint news conferences with the oil giant BP. BP’s stock is plummeting around the world. And the Attorney General of the United States, Eric Holder, has announced that he will open a criminal investigation into BP.

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