BP Spill Destroys a Way of Life
Jordan Flaherty – Oil companies leave bleak future for fishing communities in Louisiana: oil pollutes water while drilling erodes the land

Sept. 28 – TRNN It was 21 years before the waters polluted by the Exxon Valdez oil spill were fertile enough to be fished again, but fishing communities on the coast of Louisiana can’t afford to wait that long, said Jordan Flaherty, journalist and author of Flood Lines: Community and Resistance from Katrina to the Jena Six. In an interview with The Real News, Flaherty said that the massive fishing industry in the area is made up of small fishers that sell their catch wholesale. Despite the size of the industry as a whole, there are no large corporations to advocate for reparations.

While British Patroleum (BP) has paid out compensation in the amount of $5,000 to affected families, Flaherty said that the loss for these communities goes beyond financial, as their livelihood has been taken away.

“So there’s a lot of helplessness. There’s higher rates of suicide, alcoholism, already much despair in these communities and hopelessness. People are wondering how long they can really hold on to this lifestyle,” he said.

Additionally, he said history has shown that financial aid in these circumstances stops long before the damage is corrected.

“But how long will BP’s commitment really be? I think if we look at, again, the Valdez disaster and other spilling disasters, we’ve found that oil companies, while the eye of the media is on it, they will be paying out. But once the eye of the media turns and the crisis remains, will the oil companies still be there? History doesn’t show a favorable light.”

In this case, damage inflicted on these communities by the oil industry goes beyond polluted water from BP’s recent oil leak. Flaherty told TRNN that coastal erosion in Southern Louisiana is being accelerated by the network of canals which have been dug to transport oil.

“Southern coastal Louisiana is losing a football field of land every 45 minutes,” said Flaherty.
“People point to their backyards, where they used to be able to grow vegetables or hunt and fish, and they used to be able to see land as far as the eye can see, and now the water is literally lapping up to their back door.”

He said that about 40 per cent of the erosion can be attributed to the artificial canals, and it increases the vulnerability of Louisiana to hurricane damage.

“If we hadn’t lost so much land in previous decades, Hurricane Katrina would have been an even smaller storm—it would have been stopped by that buffer of land before it got anywhere close to the city of New Orleans, ” said Flaherty

He emphasized the need for massive coastal restoration.

“In communities like Pointe-au-Chien they want coastal restoration, which will not just make those communities safe, but make New Orleans safer as well.”

                                               -30-

To view/read full interviewBP Spill Destroys a Way of Life


Story Transcript

PAUL JAY, SENIOR EDITOR, TRNN: Welcome to The Real News Network. I’m Paul Jay. Off the coast of Louisiana, BP says the cap is working—the oil apparently has stopped spilling into the Gulf. But the effects are still being debated. How badly polluted is the water? And just what is it going to mean for coastal communities, some which may face, practically, extinction of their livelihood and perhaps their way of life? Now joining us to help us understand this further is Jordan Flaherty. He’s the author of the book Flood Lines: Community and Resistance from Katrina to the Jena Six. Thanks for joining us, Jordan.

JORDAN FLAHERTY, AUTHOR AND JOURNALIST: Thank you, Paul.

JAY: So when you go down to the coastal communities, what do you see?

FLAHERTY: Recently I was in the community of Pointe-au-Chien, a mostly Native American community on the southern coast. And I’d heard about the coastal erosion that they’re facing, the loss of their livelihood that people are facing, but until you see it firsthand it’s hard to imagine. You walk down the main street of this community, and the street ends at the water. And you see, continuing on, telephone poles rising out of the water where once the street continues but now has been washed away by water. People point to their backyards, where they used to be able to grow vegetables or hunt and fish, and they used to be able to see land as far as the eye can see, and now the water is literally lapping up to their back door. That’s what people are facing. Southern coastal Louisiana is losing a football field of land every 45 minutes. About 40 percent of it is due directly to the drilling work by these oil companies, the 10,000 miles of canals that they’ve dug which bring salt water into the freshwater marshes and speed a coastal erosion that is putting not just these communities but the entire southern half of the state at risk.

JAY: So if you just look in terms of economic cost/benefit, the argument will be that these resources are of such great benefit, it’s more valuable to the people, the state, than what the coastal communities are doing. I mean, what do you make of that argument?

FLAHERTY: It’s really painful to me, what’s happened to these communities. And these are, again, Native American communities who have lived there since before Louisiana was even part of the United States. They had their land bought out from under them—they were speaking a different language than the rest of people in the state, and these land auctions were happening in the city, and they didn’t even know about it. The land was bought out from under them, and the oil companies proceeded to dig into the ground right beneath them.

JAY: When are we talking about, when you’re saying “bought out from under them”?

FLAHERTY: We’re talking about the early part of the 20th century.

JAY: So how do the people there make their livelihood? Are they mostly fishermen?

FLAHERTY: Almost entirely fishermen, especially now. In the past there was more hunting and trapping, and most of that doesn’t exist, but there was fishing. But now that fishing is certainly at risk as well. There was recently a Native American delegation from Alaska that came down to visit the folks of the southern Louisiana coast, and they said now, 21 years since the Exxon Valdez, they’re just able to fish again. So does that mean that it’s 20 years before the folks on coastal Louisiana will be able to fish again? And how can you financially make that right for someone? If it’s been their livelihood and their culture to fish, even if you pay them to sit around and not fish, does that really make things right? Or is that further destruction to a community?

JAY: Are people actually getting money now? And does it look like they’re going to get compensated for lost revenue?

FLAHERTY: People have been getting bulk payments of $5,000 here and there, which I think makes people feel good in the short term. But how long will BP’s commitment really be? I think if we look at, again, the Valdez disaster and other spilling disasters, we’ve found that oil companies, while the eye of the media is on it, they will be paying out. But once the eye of the media turns and the crisis remains, will the oil companies still be there? History doesn’t show a favorable light.

JAY: And what are people doing in response to it?

FLAHERTY: You’ve seen fishers that have actually been protesting, that have been blocking waterways with their boats. You’ve seen real outrage on the coast. Unfortunately, people feel a cynicism against not just the oil company, but against the federal government, against the state government, against every avenue that they could turn to. So there’s a lot of helplessness. There’s higher rates of suicide, alcoholism, already much despair in these communities and hopelessness. People are wondering how long they can really hold on to this lifestyle.

JAY: Now, it’s not just people in the communities; it’s a massive commercial fishing industry as well. They must be screaming. Are they not having some effect?

FLAHERTY: There is a massive commercial fishing industry, although much of that commercial industry is these small fishers from various communities that go out and then sell to folks that buy it in wholesale. There’s very little large corporations that are making money on it. But communities all throughout there, if you talk to almost any family on the Gulf Coast, there’ll be at least one person, or maybe several, probably several, that work in fishing. The rest, ironically, work for the oil companies.

JAY: So what do people want? What policy do they want?

FLAHERTY: They want systemic change, Paul. They don’t just want some money to make things right. They want, number one, real safety so that these drilling disasters won’t continue. In communities like Pointe-au-Chien they want coastal restoration, which will not just make those communities safe, but make New Orleans safer as well. If we hadn’t lost so much land in previous decades, Hurricane Katrina would have been an even smaller storm—it would have been stopped by that buffer of land before it got anywhere close to the city of New Orleans. And we need real economic benefit for these communities that provided so much for this country and received so little in return.

JAY: Now, what about the levees and the actual protection? I mean, have they been built now to people’s satisfaction? Will this happen again or not?

FLAHERTY: There’s a lot of skepticism. Certainly, the Army Corps of Engineers has spent literally billions of dollars over the past 5 years on a new levee system. They express confidence that in the next year it will be at a level that is far beyond what it was before. But there’s a lot of skepticism, because they promised a lot before, and we didn’t receive it then. They promised that the levees around the city would be safe enough for a storm much larger than Katrina, and yet it wasn’t.

JAY: But in terms of the critique from, you could say, independent engineers, observers, do they seem satisfied?

FLAHERTY: There’s been some critics. If you look at Harry Shearer’s new film, The Big Uneasy, he features some critics who have expressed a lot of skepticism over the work of the Army Corps of Engineers. I think the levees are certainly better than they were. They’ve learned from some of the mistakes of Katrina. But are they good enough? And that’s what we’re unsure about.

JAY: Thanks for joining us, Jordan.

FLAHERTY: Thank you, Paul.

JAY: And thank you for joining us on The Real News Network.

End of Transcript

DISCLAIMER: Please note that transcripts for The Real News Network are typed from a recording of the program. TRNN cannot guarantee their complete accuracy.